When we show something to the reader, we’re trusting them to fill in some of the blanks. We’re letting them use their imagination. We don’t have to say George walked across the room to the front door, reached for the door knob, turned it, pulled the door open, and peeked outside. We can say George opened the door slightly and peeked outside. Our brain fills in the rest. We only need to put in the important, interesting details.
When we’re telling something (and it is necessary sometimes), we’re explaining. Use this only when needed. For instance, if the scene takes place in a shipyard, it may be necessary to explain what the main character is seeing to a certain extent to understand what’s going on. Most people today don’t understand that rivets were put into the steel while they were red hot and that young boys were there to catch them. How would you like your son doing that job today? Sure, times were different then, but that’s one of the reasons why you’d put in some narrative here to explain the scene. It pulls the reader into the setting.
When we read, we’re dealing with the inner ear and the inner eye. Our inner ear deals with the narration of the story. Our inner eye is our imagination that pulls out the imagery the words written on the page bring forth in our heads as we read. Knowing how the brain works in this way is important when you write the story. Why? Because too much telling to that inner ear tends to lull the reader to sleep. Unless you’re writing a book intended to cure insomnia, that’s probably not your intent.
Let’s try an example. Let’s look at a fairy tale… Cinderella. The prince is going through the town, trying to find the girl who fits the glass slipper. He shows up at the home of Cinderella and her stepsisters.
The prince tried the slipper on first one sister, then the other. Neither could get their foot in the dainty slipper. Cinderella hovered in the doorway, wondering if she should ask for her turn. She thought about the time she’d spent with the prince. It had been wonderful. She remembered those moments at the ball, when she’d felt so special. Then she thought of her stepmother, and the tongue-lashing that would surely follow if she asked to try on the slipper. Her thoughts drifted to her life spent waiting on her stepsisters hand and foot, wearing their cast off rags.
So is she going to step forward and try on the shoe or not? I see a lot of manuscripts like this. The writing’s not bad, but you get so stuck in the internal monologue that nothing happens. Cut to the chase, my dear.
The prince tried the slipper on first one sister, then the other. Neither could get their foot in the dainty slipper. Cinderella hovered in the doorway, wondering if she should ask for her turn. She glanced at the prince, then at her stepmother. She took a deep breath, pulled her shoulders back, and stepped into the room.
“Excuse me. May I try on the slipper?” she asked.
Isn’t that better? You get the idea she’s tossing around what she should do because she looks at the prince, then her stepmother. That’s enough right there to show she’s weighing her options. Then she pulls her act together and steps forward. Action! Of course, it always blows my mind that she has to actually try on the dang shoe. Doesn’t the prince recognize her face when he sees her? Or did he spend the entire ball looking at her foot?