If you go out on a date, would you like to be told a good time or shown a good time?
Similarly, readers expect books to entertain them. They shop for books that will show them a good time.
This is true even for nonfiction books that provide instruction or knowledge. Given two books comparable in the level of knowledge and clarity of instruction, the book that entertains the reader is more likely to attract and engage the interest of the audience.
Also, people are more apt to remember what they are shown versus what they are told.
A writer could simply say that a girl is furious. That’s telling.
Alternatively, the author could state that the girl kicked a metal pail so hard that it bounced off the corrugated tin roof, waking up all of the neighbors. That’s showing.
It’s not worth showing everything. Showing minor details, instead of telling them briefly in passing, could be quite an interruption, for example.
Rather, if you find yourself telling, consider whether showing may have been more effective. Writers tend to tell more and show less than they should. It takes a conscious effort to overcome this.
It’s often not what you say, but the way you say it, that really matters.
You must also know your audience well enough to know what your audience prefers.
Asking for a hand in marriage is telling. Getting down on one knee beside a dinner table with a beautiful ocean view at sunset just after arranging a mariachi band to sing is showing. But if your fiancée prefers the simple proposal to the fancy one, then telling is better than showing. Know your audience.
Inertia is the natural tendency of an object to maintain constant momentum. That’s telling.
When the skateboard hits the curb, the monkey flies forward because of inertia. That’s showing. Even in nonfiction, showing can be more effective than telling.
However, if your audience consists of mathematicians who crave abstract concepts and the challenge of showing themselves with what they are told, then telling may be better than showing.
Showing more and telling less doesn’t mean that you need to add pictures and links to websites and videos. Pictures and links can be highly useful, but don’t add them for the sake of showing more. You’re not trying to turn your book into a movie. Also, those links can be distractions – or worse, diversions (i.e. someone who is reading your book may click on it to go elsewhere).
Do you think that movies show more than books?
Actually, a book can show much more than any movie. Have you ever watched the movie of a book you’ve read and thought that the book was better?
One advantage that books have is the imagination of the reader. Movies don’t leave much room for that. Well-crafted stories and characterizations effectively harness the reader’s imagination.
Another advantage that books have over movies is that they are not restricted by budgets, special effect capabilities, and manpower. In fantasy, they aren’t even constrained by the laws of physics. Anything is possible in a book.
The question isn’t what you can do; you can do anything.
The question is only how best to show it to your reader.
Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon