Show versus tell in character development
Do you remember what it was like to look at a page in a book before you could read? Letters were mysterious and powerful squiggles. Adults had the magical ability of interpreting the squiggles into language.
Like any change, when you learn something new you also lose something. You forget what it was like to not know. Once you can find middle C on a piano or tie your shoes, it’s hard to go back.
It’s this tendency to forget what we didn’t know that can get in the way of creating. You write “Uncle Fred has a warm smile” on the page, but your imagination imbues those words with so much more.
A visual artist works on her skill of stripping away what she thinks she is drawing so she can draw what is actually there. The writer has the same challenge. Nowhere is this clearer than when developing a character based on someone known.
How warm is that smile?
You may write, “Uncle Fred has a warm smile.” You fill that warm smile with your memory, which is a selective beast. What your audience sees is like a movie where several frames are missing.
If you decide to use Uncle Fred in your story, you need to look at him again, to see his spirit, not your memory of his spirit.
The spirit is revealed through actions — doing. This is where showing versus telling will be your guide…
…how Uncle Fred sweeps into the room touching everyone as he goes, leaning in so close the yummy musk he wears brushes my nostrils. I can hear his warm smile in his voice, it makes me want to lean in for a hug. After making the rounds he swirls into a chair, flicking his jacket flaps back as he sticks out his chest, ready to perform as master of ceremonies. His eyes jump from one person to the next and when the glance touches me it’s a gentle caress. He speaks with a voice that rings deep and yet tender like a Buddhist meditation bell, so resonant and full every person in the room is calmed to silence by it.
I went a little overboard in that paragraph to demonstrate, but the point was to use all the detail types…
- Visual detail
- Sensual detail
These are a writer’s spices. For special scenes, the ones where you want cinematic detail, throw them all in and see how they work. But a fine meal can be ruined by overwhelming flavours. As writer, your job is to create a balanced experience — a balanced meal.
Choosing when to show — and how much — and when to tell is one of the fine lines a writer traverses. But you know what, it’s not really up to you.
Your story will tell you when. If you listen.