I feel like before we get too far into description, we need to discuss showing and telling. It’s something that I like to address every year. With good reason.
Showing is critical in bringing our stories to life on the page. I also find it to be one of the hardest transitions family history writers struggle with when learning to write stories. Understanding the difference between showing and telling and knowing when to use both. We tend to use a lot of telling and very little showing.
Showing is when we let the reader experience things for themselves. So rather than telling the reader about a specific event in your ancestor’s life, you are going to show it.
Think of showing like time travel. For a few minutes in your story, the reader can look in the mirror and see the past. They travel to a specific event and experiences it alongside the ancestor. They are there, feeling it and living it. It feels real to them.
When showing, you can hear your ancestor’s thoughts, as well as see, smell, hear, taste and feel what she does. You can see what’s around the ancestor.
When you are writing about an event, ask yourself, if I timed traveled, what would I experience. That’s how you should write it.
Showing presents evidence to the reader of an event and allows them to draw their own conclusions. Telling dictates a conclusion to the reader, telling them what they believe. It states a fact.
Bob was angry. This dictates a conclusion. It is telling.
Bob punched his fist into the wall. This demonstrates his anger by showing his actions.
Rather than tell our readers about the marriage, birth, death or any other significant event in our ancestor’s life, your job is to demonstrate those noteworthy events in their lives. Show them playing out for the readers so they can experience it.
Why is showing better than telling?
It certainly takes some thought and practice to learn to show rather than tell, but it is worth it. Here are the rewards.
- Showing offers the readers an experience. When we tell, we lay out our story in a boring lecture type narrative. But creative nonfiction is the opportunity to use scene and summary to both entertain and educate. Scene is the showing of your story, and the summary is the telling. We want a nice balance, so the reader is engaged through the story. If you want only to teach then write a family history paper on your research, but of course, don’t expect your family to read it.
- Showing entertains the reader. Rather than telling us that our ancestors made immense sacrifices, show them. Let’s think of it this way. Think about a Broadway show or a sporting event, what is more entertaining, experiencing the event for yourself, or having someone tell you about it?
- Showing evokes emotion in the reader. If you see your ancestor’s sadness, their joy, their anxiety, if you watch them struggle, it might touch you enough that you find yourself crying along with them. That’s what you want your readers to do. That’s what showing does. It gives them a vicarious experience.
- Showing makes your writing interactive. Showing allows the mind of your reader to interact and interpret what is happening. A reader who feels like they are participating in the story is a reader who won’t be able to put it down.
Make every effort to show rather that tell and give your readers an opportunity to travel to your ancestor’s place and time.