I observed a group of mothers playing with their toddlers at the park. In general, I didn’t mind the noise or chaos of the park, but today I could feel my annoyance building as I glared at one of the mothers. A mother I’d nicknamed “Loudmouth,” because she wouldn’t stop talking. (Not once. Not even when the other mothers avoided her gaze and scooted away from her.)
Loudmouth finally asked one of the other mothers a question (perhaps she’d realized that conversations are supposed to be two-sided). “Your child is so sweet, how old is he?” she asked.
The other mother smiled shyly and responded, “fifteen months.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “MY son could say the alphabet backward and forward by that age.”
I clenched my hand and thought of a string of nasty retorts, but then, Loudmouth’s son started eating sand, and I felt a little better. Loudmouth ran off to stop her son, and the shy mother sat back, looking calmer than I felt. Her son, a beautiful little boy with light brown curls, approached his mother.
“Up,” he cooed.
His mother picked him up, smiling down at him.
A third mother, a lady with smudged makeup, grinned. “Now, that’s a smart boy!”
You might be wondering what this story has to do with writing, but the truth is that it showcases exactly the topic I’ve been struggling with: showing verses telling. One mother “told” the others that her son was smart, while the other allowed her child to “show” how smart he was. And as I thought this situation over, I realized the many problems that arise with showing verses telling.
First of all, when you tell someone something, you aren’t allowing them to think or get involved with what is happening. They are expected to simply take your word. This would be a terrible thing to experience as a reader, because reading is all about the process of investing yourself in a character. When you don’t take the journey with the character, however, and are simply told about it, you don’t care as much about what happens to the character.
Second of all, when you tell someone something, it might be harder for them to believe than if they saw what you were talking about. When you create a book about lamas that take over the world with flesh-eating spit, people might find themselves struggling to believe your plot. But, if you are able to show everything as it happens through the strength of your writing, your readers aren’t going to doubt what’s happening, they’re not going to have to suspend their disbelief, because they’ve been right there every step of the way. Why wouldn’t they fear the all-mighty lamas too?