It is one of the most taught writing lessons, show don’t tell. However, when it comes to creative nonfiction and specifically family history writing we include both showing and telling in our stories and therefore it’s important to know the difference. Showing is writing scenes, while telling is narrative summer and as family history writer our job is to find a healthy balance and to blend them together seamlessly.
Unfortunately, too many family history writers’ struggle with showing, they tend to lean more towards telling. Telling is necessary to impart information, in getting someone from one place to another or to give the reader some backstory, but too much and you’ve lost your reader. Family history writers struggle in bringing a past event to life by showing, offering one more reason why our readers do not become engaged in our stories.
In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, the godfather of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind tells us:
Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably – and in action. In scenes.
Think of your family history story as a movie, the viewer doesn’t wish to be told the story; we want the movie to play out in clear and
colourful scenes allowing the action and dialogue to convey the desired impression to your reader.
For instance if I was telling you about my grandmother becoming sick I might write…
Grandpa was very nervous as Grandma laid ill in her bed. Dr. Wilson was upstairs with her, grandpa waited for the news.
Or if I wanted to show you this as a scene…..
Grandpa fidgets in his chair, twisting his dry, callous hands in his lap, his head hangs, staring at the floor, listening, waiting to hear footsteps descend down the stairs.
How is she? Anne asked
Dr. Wilson is with her now, Grandpa replied.
I’ve conveyed the very same information but one tells the reader what is happening, the second shows the reader what is happening. Do you see the difference? By showing we are able to allow the reader to hear, see and feel our ancestors, bringing them to life on the page.
Tomorrow, we will explore scenes closer, what comprises a scene and how a scene should serve your larger story.