Yes, that particular writing teacher is/was me. Then I had a student ask, “But aren’t we TELLING a story?”
No, you aren’t. Telling a story is something you do on the playground to your friends. It goes something like this:
Yesterday I went to the mall. I bought a pair of shoes at Nordstrom and had a Coke at the food court. I thought about seeing a movie, but I saw Bruce with Sasha and went home.
Your friends, because they ARE your friends, listen and nod and say things like, “No way!” and “Cool!” But your readers are not your friends. Sometimes your reader is a teacher, who is looking for sensory details and SHOWING. Sometimes your reader is a mom, wondering where you got the money for the new shoes. I can’t help you with Mom, but I can help you with the SHOWING.
Start by closing your eyes and imagining yourself in the scene you are writing. When I have the scene firmily in my mind, I ask myself what do I see? Colors, textures, and sizes are as important as people and actions. Then what do I hear? What do I smell? What do I taste? Obviously, if you aren’t eating anything you can leave out taste, or maybe you taste something abstract like fear. Feel is a double sense. What do I feel physically? Temperature, hard seats, soft fabric, painful shoes, etc. What do I feel emotionally? This last one is the most important! Readers will like your story if they connect to your characters. In order to connect, they need to know what emotions your characters are feeling.
So let’s try that mall scene again, but this time let’s SHOW it instead of TELL it.
Yesterday I was so frustrated by my homework I had to escape. I walked to the mall and escaped into the noise and confusion of the Spring Sale. At Nordstrom, a darling pair of pink flowered sandals called to me and I couldn’t resist. Just sliding them on my feet made me feel like a million bucks. I paid for them and wore them out of the store, strutting past the other shoppers. At the food court, I braved the pungent odors of fried hamburger and greasy fries to sit at a tiny table with a large icy Coke. Crossing my legs and pointing my pink sandalled foot, I ignored the sticky ketchup spots on the table and sipped the drink through the paper straw.
I could see the marquee for the movie theaters, and a couple looked interesting. Then I noticed him. Bruce was at the ticket window; his broad shoulders in the jean jacket were unmistakable. Maybe I should saunter over in my new pink sandals and see what movie Bruce was going to see. Maybe he would look at me with those deep brown eyes and ask me to join him. But, no! He was with someone. The laughing blond turned around. Sasha? How could he be with Sasha? She was my best friend. Definitely WAS.
Infuriated by the sight of my ex-friend with the guy I’d had a crush on forever, I ripped off my new sandals and shoved my feet back into my old sneakers. Then I stomped home.
See? You really feel it now that I’ve SHOWN you, don’t you? You still know what happened, but now you also know a bit more about the setting and the characters. SHOWING has the added benefit of making your stories longer and more interesting! Go ahead, SHOW me a scene in comments.
In hardcover: Knightley Academy by Violet Haberdasher