The idea of showing and not just telling is a staple in the personal rule book of most writers. Or at least, it should be. Nothing frustrates me more as a reader than an author feeling the need to tell me every single thing about their world or characters and not letting me work it out for myself. One Nation recently at war with another in this fantasy world? Don’t give me a detailed play-by-play of the past conflict, if it’s not relevant to what’s happening now. Let me feel the tension between the leaders of each place when they speak. Let me see one guard be wary of another after catching sight of the insignia on his uniform.
This idea doesn’t just apply to Fantasy or Science Fiction genres, though it is a little more hazardous to stay on the right side of the line. It applies to every kind of writing, fictional or not. If you were having to write a description of the Eiffel Tower for someone who has never been, you might go into great detail about the shape, architecture and methods of reaching the top. You might try to explain the atmosphere and other tourists, the sheer amount of other people you might see there. But you’d never have to tell someone it was really tall. They know that. That’s why it’s called a Tower.
Some of the most interesting and memorable stories I’ve ever watched, read or heard have been ones where the author simply refuses to explain everything to me. They feed me information in drips as the story plays, giving me hints about a character’s past or small references to a place that has yet to be seen in the narrative. There are many positive effects to this style of writing. Allowing a reader to use their imagination is a key element in making them remember your story. Let them insert a little bit of themselves into your world as they read it, it’s part of what makes readers so protective of the stories they love.
Most of us know that sinking feeling of doubt after someone tells us a book we like is being turned into a film or TV series. Those questions we ask ourselves as we immediately look for more information. Who have they cast in that role and where will they film it? Who’s done the script? Who will direct it?! We think like this because in our heads, we already see the places and people from that story. We’ve already cast the roles and chosen the set locations. And it’s usually because the author has left just enough to our imagination that we’ve been able to make the story our own as well.
But that connection may not happen if you’re too busy pointing out every antique in the room and its place in history or every chip in the wood around a doorway. If you’re explaining every past encounter between two characters to show why they’re treating each other that way now, readers have no chance to see things for themselves in their own way.
For me no genre does this better than British Science-Fiction. Classic Doctor Who simply assumed you knew what made the TARDIS work. Sapphire and Steel couldn’t care less if you understood what they were doing or not. But the stories that continued each week were so complex and interesting that viewers tuned in mostly just in hope that at some point they’d find out what the hell was going on.
Of course, you can’t build a good plot on mystery alone, even Agatha Christie needed the reliable Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot to guide her readers every novel. But she never gave too much away about her suspects. She let us come to our own conclusions, whether they rang true in the end or not was part of the fun.
We all have those paragraphs that need a good tightening up during the editing process. And it is so easy to get carried away with descriptions of lush backdrops and in-depth character histories. But do your readers really need them all? Let them take on the descriptive burden themselves now and again. They’ll thank you for it!