We walk through the world each day. We see things happen, we see people act, we see the effects of the emotional world around us. But what really happened? Why did you get that look from the stranger you passed on the street? Why is your friend acting differently today? “Why?” is the real question. “Why?” helps us ask the questions, which bring the answers, that help us understand the reality of our world and existence a little better.
What is reality? The reality is not always what we see. Reality is up to interpretation. In reality, what we see are only the effects of actions and how they play out in the world. For example, the same phrase could be uttered by the same person to two (or more) different people and, almost every time, the reaction or result will be different. People “take” things differently because their reactions to a certain action is based on their experience of the world as well as their direct experience with a certain person, place or thing. This is the reality we live in – interpretation is everything.
Sometimes effects directly correlate to the actual action, or “reality”, but, often times, they do not. When this is the case, it’s our job to sort through the actions, words and other signs in order to determine the appropriate response. What lays underneath and what comes to light when we ask “why?” is, most often, emotions, feelings which are the driving force behind all actions. Emotion is what moves us forward, what causes us to act and what, sometimes, causes us to act irrationally.
It is these emotions that the writer must tap into. My character goes to the grocery store every Saturday. Do you care? No. What if, however, through the story, you find out that the reason he goes to the grocery store every Saturday is because it was the last place he and his wife went before she died fifteen years ago and, since then, he’s gone every week? That, immediately, tells you something more about this character and makes the story more interesting. No one cares that he goes to the store. We care why he does it.
And, in the same way, it is more effective for the writer to show this than to tell it. I could tell you, “Jim goes to the store every Saturday to feel closer to his dead wife.” Does that captivate you? Does that make you wonder? Does that help you to better understand Jim? Again, the answer is no. However, if I show you Jim, if you see that he kisses a picture of his wife in a frame with a layer of dust on it before he leaves the house, if you see how the grocery store employees know him well, if I describe to you how Jim lingers in the frozen foods isle and buys a carton of strawberry ice cream because, presumably, it was her favorite…well, that just paints a different picture, doesn’t it?
Yes, there are times to be blunt with your words but handle those instances with care and use them sparingly. If you are told how someone else feels, if you are told what someone else does, you’ll understand what is happening but you won’t be able to experience it with them. When you are shown, however, it allows you to feel what the character is feeling (or feel something different based on your experiences), you are able to see the world through their eyes, you are able to empathize with them.
Being shown allows you to fill the story with your own feelings and, through this, to identify with that character (or characters). When the writer shows instead of telling, it allows you to make the story your own and, when that happens, the words become a piece of art, different in everyone’s eyes.