Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Evoke Versus Invoke:
Showing Rather Than Telling in Your Prose

By Darwin A. Garrison
©2004, Darwin A. Garrison


You know, cats and readers have a lot in common.  For example, you can't really tell a cat anything. 

It sits there and stares at you like you're the center of their universe while you're talking.  Then the cat ignores the pet door leading to the litter box in the furnace room and wanders off after a dust bunny.  The only option left is to snatch it up by the scruff of the neck and shove its arrogant, furry head through the vinyl flap so it can see the danged box; preferably this is followed by a swift boot to the hindquarters to finish the transaction.

Well, to be honest, the parallel mostly stops at not being able to tell them anything -- although the stuffing of heads is occasionally tempting with readers, as well...

One fundamental error an aspiring speculative fiction writer can make is to "tell" readers everything, rather than "show" them.  New writers often have an urge to "share a detailed vision" with their readers, so they recite a list of facts  I will even admit that I used to think that was a good way to tell a story.

An even worse error is to express an agenda with all the force of a television evangelist.  You can almost hear the soapbox creaking as authors who do this climb up and shout, "Adapt to my worldview, you heathen masses!  For I am right and you are wrong!"  These authors tend to repeat themselves incessantly, as well.

Just spare me.

Your words are dull and lifeless without the reader's experience.  Nothing you can write will ever paint an image as vivid as the memories your readers already have.  A professional writer -- a writer who gets published and succeeds -- will evoke images from the reader's experience base.  An amateur writer -- someone who may have excellent technical writing but lacks this insight -- will often attempt to invoke the images they see or the beliefs they hold through the direct application of sufficient verbiage and may lose potential readers as a result.  This is also sometimes referred to the difference between implication ("showing") and exposition ("telling").

Writing a story of any length requires a walk along a razor's edge.  If you are too vague, the reader won't be able to form an image.  If you are too specific, you might as well be lecturing on calculus.  The key is to give readers enough detail to bring an image to life in their imaginations without crossing the line into over-detailed specifics.  Implication is how you keep readers involved.  Exposition is how you feed them direct data in the shortest time possible.

Let's look at some basic examples:

Telling:

The lights went out.  Sharon felt afraid.  She sprained her pinky on a shelf unit trying to find a light switch.

Showing:

A chill ran up Sharon's spine when the room suddenly became dark.  She shuffled forward, groping for the wall and a light switch.  A flare of pain went through her right pinky as she hit something hard and cold.

The key is to note the clues that tell when you're afraid or what time of year it is.  Use those clues in your writing instead of saying "she was afraid" or "it was spring." 

So how do you know when you're telling, not showing?  Telling prose sounds like a textbook or technical manual.  Telling dialogue sounds like a sermon or presentation of statistical data.  Showing prose incites feelings.  Showing dialogue is like hearing a live conversation that draws the reader's attention.

In fact, combining dialogue and prose is a very effective tool in evoking reader involvement.  Let's take a scene and see the difference between a technical description and a more involving description with a bit of conversation added:

Telling:

The great hall of the Aconasta had been fashioned from enormous oak trees.  The most massive boles were utilized as posts to support smaller trunks that formed the support for the thatched roof.  The walls were of planks split from other trees.  Many graceful scenes had been carved into the roof beams to capture the clan's history.  It was to this hall that everyone in the clan returned near nightfall to eat, talk, and prepare for the next day's work.

Now, if I was doing research on early Aconasta culture or if I had a Great Hall Kit that I wanted to build, that description might help.  Let's see if we can show the hall now, using the reader's experiences to build a more engaging picture that someone might read for fun:

Showing: 

Jance ran through the open door into the great hall of the Aconasta. He forced himself to a walk.  Although several smoke holes high up near the roof allowed some light into the building, his eyes needed a moment to adjust between the sunshine outside and the warm glow of firelight within.

He glanced around to look for the storyteller Caruck and saw the old man in his favorite winter sitting spot in front of Gramma Gernta's wall-hearth on the warm limestone flagstones.  Kelmet, Usta, and Vernos had already found prime places on the floor in front of the old man.  His friends also had cups full of fresh-pressed berry juice in their hands.

After carefully laying his gathering pouch on a food table, Jance scurried over to the hearth to find a spot behind Usta that was still marginally on the stone instead of the dirt.  Gernta touched him lightly on the shoulder and pushed another cup of her juice into his hands.

"I didn't forget you, Jancey."

As he looked up to thank her, he saw the carving on the new central roof pole that his father had finished the winter before.  The Saag bear hunt paraded across the wood, its figures colored with blue berry juice as well as powdered cobalt and ochre mixed with fat.

"Shall we hear the tale of the Saag bear, children?" asked Caruck, taking a cue from Jance's distraction.  Jance and his friends shouted their agreement, causing the old hunter to rock back in mock surprise.  Caruck waved his arms and began the tale. 

Yes, showing can eat up words, but which description engages the reader's imagination more?

Expositional writing still shows up in creative work.  Sometimes you have to explain a technology or a social construct in as few words as possible, and exposition is good for that.  That's why instruction books and textbooks are written in an expositional style.  Still, it's good to introduce your exposition by breaking it up into bits and burying it in conversation or descriptions of activities if at all possible, unless you want to present data that is totally neutral but has significant implications for your story line. 

Exposition often surfaces in science fiction stories as authors build up the technical base of their worlds, and is frequently encountered as an aside or musing that turns into a dissertation on make-believe technology.  Let's examine a discussion of faster than light drive, for example, with two optional ways of introducing the subject:

Telling: 

Fold drive technology exploits the mathematical concept of multiple dimensions.  What humanity perceives as infinitely far away is actually very close if you can accept that the universe folds back on itself in a higher dimension.  This concept can easily be explained by taking a sheet of paper and folding it back and forth upon itself to make a fan.  A hole through the folded surface allows a pin or ball bearing to be pushed through the layers to any of the intersecting points.  When unfolded, the ball will be seen to have moved much further than the distance required to pass through the paper itself.

Showing: 

Angie sat in the observer chair and fidgeted with her hair.

"Nervous?" Ray asked as he continued to enter data into the computer at the engineer station.

"A little," Angie admitted.  "I know it's stupid, but transit always makes me uneasy.  I don't want to be folded."

Ray chuckled.  "It's not stupid at all.  Lots of people have a bit of trouble being one place in one instant and then light years away the next, but it's not you that gets folded."  He grabbed a clipboard that held a pad of paper.  He put one dot on top of the sheet and another dot on the bottom and then handed her the clipboard and pen.

"Draw a path between the dots, any shape you want."

Angie drew a long, squiggly line on the paper and then handed it back to Ray.

Ray tore off the sheet and began to fold the paper back and forth as though he were making a paper fan.

"You see, kiddo," he said with a wink as his fingers worked, "we poor savages are stuck with our piddly little four dimensions: length, width, depth, and time.  The math geniuses say that there're lots more dimensions that we can't sense.  So, if this sheet," he held up the now folded paper, "is our universe, then folding it is like going to the next dimension.  Now this pen is our fold drive."  He took the pen and jabbed it through the paper, piercing both dots at once.  "It allows us to pass from where we are to where we want to be instantly, without following your line.  Easy as pie and nothing to fear."  He handed Angie the plot sheet and returned to his work.

Angie opened the paper.  The two points had holes, but so did all the little folds in between.

"What about all these other points we pass through?" she asked Ray, holding up the opened sheet.

"Ah!" he replied with a nod.  "Yes, what about that, I wonder?"

There are two primary ways to write fiction: using exposition or using implication.  Exposition provides data with a minimum of emotional involvement and can be very hard to read in large chunks; it invokes a picture in a reader's mind.  Implication uses descriptive phrasing to coax readers into filling in the blanks from their own experience bases, thus evoking images more vivid than detailed descriptions could provide. 

Both styles are present in most speculative fiction, the proportion depending on the needs of the narrative, but these days, most fiction tends to have much more implication than exposition.  The key, as in all writing, is achieving the proper balance between informing readers and entertaining them.

Thanks for reading the article; I hope you found it useful.  Now, I've got to go get the cat out of the furnace…