Show don’t tell


Readers like to work things out for themselves – so don’t make things too easy for them!

There is an old adage in creative writing, which is ‘show don’t tell.’ Scenes are much more effective when the reader can work out what is happening for themselves, rather than just being given the information. Consider, for example, the following description from The Great Gatsby:

As my train emerged from the tunnel into sunlight, only the hot whistles of the National Biscuit Company broke the simmering hush at noon. The straw seats of the car hovered on the edge of combustion; the woman next to me perspired delicately for a while into her white shirtwaist, and then, as her newspaper dampened under her fingers, lapsed despairingly into deep heat with a desolate cry. Her pocket-book slapped to the floor.
“Oh, my!” she gasped.
I picked it up with a weary bend and handed it back to her, holding it at arm’s length and by the extreme tip of the corners to indicate that I had no designs upon it — but every one near by, including the woman, suspected me just the same.
“Hot!” said the conductor to familiar faces. “Some weather! hot! hot! hot! Is it hot enough for you? Is it hot? Is it.. .?”
My commutation ticket came back to me with a dark stain from his hand. That any one should care in this heat whose flushed lips he kissed, whose head made damp the pajama pocket over his heart!

Fitzgerald shows us that the weather is hot in so many ways: the burning seats, the perspiring woman, the damp newspaper, the sweat-stained ticket… It’s a wonder we aren’t suffering from heat-exhaustion just reading his descriptions. And that’s the point. He really makes us feel that heat - so much more effective than just telling us about it.

If we analyse Fitzgerald’s methods a bit more closely, we can see that he achieves many of his effects by appealing to the different senses: the hot whistle (sound), the straw seats (texture), the dark stain (sight), the woman’s perspiration (smell), the flushed lips (taste). Okay, so the last two are a little tenuous, but you get the idea. Involving the reader’s senses ensure the whole person is immersed in the scene.

And if we can immerse our readers in a description, they are much more likely to engage with our story than if we just bombard them with information.