Monday, October 12, 2015
Show Don't Tell--in Being and in Books
As writers we’ve all heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell.” For our manuscripts this phrase often means don’t use passive voice. It can also mean write so the reader can experience the scene or emotions and in experiencing relate to what’s on the page. Solid advice that many writers have trouble understanding. So, how can we show and not tell?
This morning in church the minister said something that might help clarify this. He was preaching on the parable of The Good Samaritan. In case you don’t know the parable of The Good Samaritan, it’s a story Jesus told about a man who was robbed and beaten by thieves and left to die on the side of the road. A religious expert wanted clarification about the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself”, which Jesus had indicated was key to inheriting the kingdom of heaven. But the religious expert wanted to know just who his neighbor was.
To answer the question, Jesus told this story. (Paraphrased here)
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and left him half dead. A Jewish priest traveling the road, spotted the thieves’ victim and crossed to the opposite side of the road to avoid the injured man. A bit later a Levite, another Jewish leader, did the same. Then a Samaritan came upon the man and he stopped and helped him, tending to his wounds, taking him to a nearby inn, and giving the innkeeper money to take care of the man, promising to reimburse the innkeeper for any additional expenses the man’s care might require.
Then Jesus asked, “Who do you think was a neighbor to the injured man?”
The expert in the law, who’d asked the original question said, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
My point today isn’t as much about who the neighbor was, because Jesus makes that pretty clear. Nor is my point about what we should do in that sort of situation. Instead, I’m focusing on the story Jesus told. Near the end of the sermon my minister said, “People don’t care about how much you know until you show them how much you care.” That phrase struck a chord in me as a Christian and as a writer.
Jesus could have taken the “Tell” route and merely said, “Everyone is your neighbor.” The expert in the law probably would have walked away saying, “Well, that wasn’t very much help.” Instead, Jesus took the “Show” route, and gave him an illustration—showed him an action—of what being a neighbor looks like. And he showed the man that a person who was hated among the Jews was a much better neighbor to the man than the religious leaders had been. I can only imagine what kind of impression that left.
As humans we relate much better to being shown something than being told something. I could tell you a hundred times that I loved you, but would my words be enough to convince you? Probably not. Until I demonstrate, in some caring manner, the depths of my feelings, you wouldn’t believe I cared.
As a writer I can also say the heroine loved the hero, or she was angry, or sad. But until I give a reader a taste of those emotions—show her the depth of the characters—the reader will not be completely involved in my story. They need to experience the whole of the story just like those we introduce to Christ need to experience the depths of God’s love, through us.
The parable of The Good Samaritan demonstrates how to show when we tell a story. The actions of the Samaritan demonstrate how to show God’s love to others. So, the next time you are tempted to tell first and skip the showing, stop and reconsider. Show, don’t tell. It makes the story so much better—on the page and in lives of others.
Catherine Castle writes inspirational and sweet romance. Her debut book, The Nun and the Narc is a two-time award-winning book.