‘Spoon feeding, in the long run, teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.’ E.M. Forster
When you start to write fiction, one of the first things you learn is that you must show your readers rather than telling them. It took me a long while to get to grips with what this meant, and to get the hang of using the technique in my writing. When we are children, writing stories at school, we learn to tell them. We are encouraged to narrate a series of events, using plenty of connectives, adjectives and adverbs to show how well we can use language. It’s a lot easier to write in this way, but it doesn’t make for a very good story.
When you tell your readers a story, you present them with what you already know to be the truth about what happened. They don’t have to figure it out for themselves. They just have to sit back and listen while you tell them about the characters and events that you’ve created. They only get to see what happened through your eyes, rather than through their own.
When you show your readers a story, you use the power of events, characters and dialogue to help them make their own sense of what is happening. You encourage your readers to immerse themselves in the story and invest their emotional energy in the characters. They live the story through or alongside the people within it.
You’ll know when this has happened to you as a reader, because you start reading a book, and suddenly hours have passed without you realising. Or you get to the final page of a story, and there are tears streaming down your face. Or you finish reading a book, and the very first thing you do is tell your friends you simply must read this.
There are striking parallels between this aspect of writing fiction, and the art of teaching. It’s fairly straightforward to tell a class of children what they need to know – to spoon-feed them knowledge or information. (And indeed in certain situations this is the quickest and most efficient way to go about it.) Some children will understand the shape of the spoon quickly, and hang onto it easily. However, others will immediately drop the spoon, and some won’t even be able to pick it up in the first place.
Showing a class of children is a much more complex, and complicated, affair. If you choose to show them, you have to find a way to immerse them in a concept or an idea or an opinion or a skill or a piece of knowledge. You have to take an abstract concept (forces, metaphor, dramatic tension) and find a way to bring it to life for them. Yes, it takes more time and teacher creativity, but when we learn through our own experiences, the learning really sticks. I sometimes wonder whether, at the heart of the current knowledge -v- creativity and insist -v- engage debate is the worry that doing this well is very difficult indeed.
Now of course I can tell you how this writing technique works all I like, but the best way for you to understand the difference is for me to show you an example – to let you learn through experiencing it. So, here goes.
If I was going to tell you my story about Bad Faerie and the Grotto of the Goblins, it might look something like this:
Frankie was a really cool faerie. She liked to call herself Bad Faerie, because she wanted everyone to think that she was tough and strong. She had a silly younger brother called Ernesto, and she absolutely hated him. He was always being rude to her, and he loved annoying her. Every time that she accidentally let some faerie smoke escape from her ears, he would make a rude joke about how stinky she was. One day Ernesto was outside Frankie’s room, trying to get in so he could annoy her some more. He kept calling her silly names … (I’ll stop there before you nod off …)
But I want to show you. I must attempt to bring the characters to life so you can come to your own conclusions about what is going on. Here’s how that part of the story ended up:
“You’ve got to say it,” Frankie hissed through the keyhole. She leaned hard against the door to stop Ernesto getting in. “You’ve got to say it, or you can’t come in. Who am I?”
“Sad faerie, sad faerie,” Ernesto called in a sing-song voice. She could feel him shoving against the door, trying to open it.
“Bad faerie, not sad faerie,” Frankie growled.
“Mad faerie, mad faerie,” Ernesto called again. Frankie snarled. A giant puff of faerie smoke escaped from her ears. She wrinkled her nose and flapped at the smoke to make it go away (faerie smoke is really stinky).
“Say it,” Frankie called. “Say it right. Say the whole thing.”
“Okayyyy,” Ernesto said. “You’re Bad Faerie. The baddest faerie in all of the Crystal Kingdom. I said it. Now let me in.”
Frankie opened the door. Ernesto slipped inside before his sister could change her mind.
“Urrggh!” he said. “It smells like someone died in here. Either that or you farted.” He smirked. “Are you gonna stink bomb the goblins? That might work. Nothing can stand that smell.”
Of course sometimes you do need to tell the reader something – perhaps for the sake of brevity, or because it helps keep the pace of the story high. But as a writer, whenever you find yourself stating something that you already know to be true about the characters and the story then you should stop in your tracks and remind yourself over and over again.
Show, don’t tell.