One of the most famous pieces of advice that professional writers will share is, “Show, don’t tell.” But what does this really mean? Essentially, to describe, and let the story unfold, so that the reader can experience it as you did, firsthand. This dictum is directed at writers, but whether you record your stories or write them, the same techniques apply. In fact, oral storytellers are more likely to tell a story well, naturally.
Using many colorful, descriptive details gives your stories a sense of reality, of the time and place, and also an emotional tone or mood. This helps listeners, and readers, to feel what is going on in the story as you relate it. You want them to “be there” as you were. “Show, don’t tell” cautions us to tell the story fully, without skimping on the sensory information: the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that make up experience. If you merely tell about an event, your result will read more like a summary than a story, and will lack the emotional impact it might have had.
Begin to “show” by being specific. For example, if you are telling a story that involves a car, you can show the reader what kind of a car. Is it “a faded, rusty old Chevy Nova held together with Bondo” or a “sleek metallic blue Porsche Carrera?” Complex descriptions will imply much more than color or brand.
(Photo courtesy of The Spy Car on Creative Commons)
Say that your story takes place during a beautiful morning. You can transport your reader to experience the beautiful morning by involving her senses in the description. Is the sun warm? How blue is the sky and how white are the puffy clouds? Would she hear a sparrow singing in the willow tree? Smell the roses blooming in the garden? Would she feel the moisture on the lawn? The word beautiful tells us little, but these specifics make the story unique and more “true”.
Another way to make stories more vibrant is to choose le mote juste, as the French would say, just the right word, to show exactly what you mean. If you’ve said, “He ran fast,” would it be even more accurate to say, “He sprinted effortlessly,” or was it “He fled hastily”? Let the truth of your story guide these choices.
(Photo courtesy of Hugo90’s on Creative Commons)
Writing guru Natalie Goldberg advises, “Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken within them.” Or as Mark Twain put it, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
Another wonderful way to bring your stories to life is by using dialogue. It allows your reader to “listen in” on conversations of the people you are writing about, as if they were hearing them firsthand. You may not be able to recall what people have said literally, but we can often recreate what that person would have said, and how they would have said it. That’s good enough! Incorporating dialogue into your stories is worth an extra effort, because it sets up a scene of people interacting. That’s the stuff of drama.