“Show, don’t tell.” Is there a fiction writer out there who isn’t sick of hearing that command? Consider this: when telling your own story, you must show and tell.
This was the lesson shared recently by two masters of the personal essay–Keith Woods and Lonnae O’Neal Parker–at the “Write Your Heart Out” conference sponsored by the Poynter Institute at Georgetown University. But the lesson applies to fiction writers as well, whether you’re crafting a query letter for an agent, a bio for your book’s dust jacket, or the opening remarks at your first book reading. Mastering this art can also improve your fiction.
What does it mean to both show and tell? This is my personal take, but you could say it’s really no different from the “show and tell” we all remember from grade school. You have to show what you’re presenting–pass it around the classroom, letting your classmates touch it, smell it and, for that weird kid who eats paste, taste it–while also telling why you’ve chosen to share it.
Here are some key takeaways from the Poynter session:
- Connect readers with the sensual: O’Neal Parker said this is no different than writing quality fiction–use all of the senses and allow the reader to feel the scene with you.
- Connect readers with yourself: This is a critical step, O’Neal Parker said. “I find a place for me” in that scene, she said, and after the reader has experienced the tactile, she shares what it means to her. When done well, the reader will connect, even to feelings or scenes different from his or her own experience. “Can I find my story in yours?” is what the reader is asking, Woods said.
- Connect readers sparingly: The selection of details should both connect with the narrator’s “telling” of his or her state of mind, and the best way to do this is to reveal just enough show and tell. This allows the reader to find the true meaning on his or her own. “Have your details point to what readers need to know,” Woods said. “Don’t overload with detail,” O”Neal Parker added.
- Connect readers after retelling: The most successful personal narratives, Woods said, come from repeated tellings before writing. “I’ve told the story many times before I write it,” Woods said. It doesn’t have to be oral storytelling predating the writing. “I’ve already thought about the story a lot. I’ve written it in my head,” said O’Neal Parker.
When fiction writers are told to show, not tell, implied in that is that there must be some telling. After all, it’s called storytelling, not storyshowing. But writing a personal essay is a great exercise in finding balance in showing and telling, a balance that can easily be exported to one’s fiction writing.
How do you utilize both showing and telling in your creative endeavors?
NOTE TO READERS: A big thanks to Jon M of @ThinDifference for nominating The Artist’s Road as a top-10 blog for writers in the Write to Done annual contest. I was aware of the contest but hadn’t considered competing, and a review of those nominated to date suggests there are plenty of deserving candidates. That review also makes clear many of these sites are encouraging votes; quick bursts of nominations for one blog coincide with tweets and Facebook posts and other outreach from those bloggers. So I might as well play along too, right? I’d love for you to head over there and add The Artist’s Road as a nominee, and please let me know you’ve done so. I will be eternally grateful, although I can’t promise that gratitude will lead to any financial remuneration. The deadline to submit is December 10th.