Make readers feel the prose, not read it.
But it took me some time to understand what the editor was trying to tell me. English is not my mother tongue, and my only writing experience before that short story came from writing academic papers and translating fiction works written by other authors. So my first reaction was to argue that I’m not making a film, but telling a story. Right? But in the next sentence in the rejection email, the editor quoted Anton Chekhov as saying, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
I was telling a story, yes, but I needed to do more. I needed to paint a picture, to feed the reader information about the setting, the characters, and the events, so they could picture it all in their minds, without being too obvious about it. The key is to paint a picture using subtle strokes, to make readers feel the prose, not read it. I got the message, but unfortunately, the editor, as helpful as he was, didn’t leave me a set of instructions on how to do that.
I’ve tried to show, not tell, ever since—sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. I'd think of Chekhov’s quote often, until one day I finally understood what he was trying to say. What is the simplest way of saying that something has happened without actually saying it? What Chekhov was saying, in effect, was that we should show the result of an action or event. The readers will infer from the consequences what has caused them; they will see the act by seeing the result.
In my current work in progress, my child protagonist feels lonely and like an outsider because of her parents’ constant squabbles and resentful silences which force her to distance herself from them. And that was almost exactly how I put it when writing a scene where she goes away on summer camp and she’s the only child who doesn’t get a hug from her mum before boarding the bus. The wording sounded stilted and lame. The re-written version goes like this:
I caught the look of a girl from another class as she let go of her mum. She glanced at my parents and then back at me. I was suddenly so ashamed of myself, of not being enough, of not being deserving of a hug that I threw myself at Mum, almost knocking her down with the unexpectedness of my outburst.
Instead of saying she felt like an outsider, I showed what happened when a classmate reminded her of her miserable situation. This transformed the passage into a more active scene with the protagonist’s outer actions revealing her inner emotions. It reads better and divulges more about the character’s inner life. In short, it’s effective.
Another fool-proof way to avoid dull exposition is to break the scene down into description and dialogue. While description offers the details which situate the characters and events into the environment, dialogue can reveal a lot about the characters, their perspective, feelings, and mannerisms. It is also more immediate and engages the reader in a way that simply telling the story can’t. Dialogue tags can be omitted altogether when descriptions of action are included in between direct speech, which also helps improve the writing style and helps with the pacing of the narration.
After all these years, with several dozen short stories published, and a novel in the works for my PhD study, I still struggle with the concept of showing instead of telling. My first drafts are horrendous and rife with telling and awkward (even unintelligible) prose. Revisions are extensive and numerous, but the two tricks I mentioned above always help in making the narrative more fluent, authentic, and subtle.
What aspect of writing do you struggle with, and how do you tackle it?