There are a lot of things to keep straight when you’re writing a story: characters, plot, setting, timeline, names, language, background, and more. It’s a lot of information that you have to keep track of—and a lot of information to convey to your readers.
Given that, it can be tempting to dump all of that information in large blocks of exposition or in character descriptions rather than communicating that information in the narrative. But the advice given to filmmakers and playwrights is just as relevant for writers: show, don’t tell.
Let’s explore a little of what that means.
Exposition: Creating Your World
In works of fiction, establishing the world is an essential element in framing the story you’re trying to tell. But how should you do that?
Writers are often tempted to write long passages of exposition, bringing the reader up to speed on the entire history of the world the characters live in. For example, a historical novel might begin like this:
The Dutch were the firsts colonists in what is now known as New York. They established the colony of New Netherlands in the regions of present-day New York State and New Jersey. Their primary city was the city of New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, which Peter Minuit, the third governor of New Netherlands, had purchased from the Lenape Indians for 60 guilder worth of trade in 1626—about $1,000 dollars today. The Dutch would eventually build a wall along the north end of their Manhattan Island settlement that would give Wall Street its name and prove utterly ineffective at preventing the English from capturing the city without firing a shot forty years later. But even in the eighteenth century, Dutch influence remained in the now renamed New York in everything from the architecture to the mercantile tradition that would eventually establish the city as one of the great trading centers of the world.
This was the New York that Jacob Aldridge knew. He was a merchant in New York’s commerical district near Wall Street, a descendant of those earliest Dutch settlers on his mother’s side and of their English supplanters on his father’s side. He left his shop and made his way to the waterfront to greet the ship arriving with the goods that would change his life. Or so he hoped.
That’s all very interesting, I suppose, but how does it advance the story or tell us about our characters? You’d be much better off starting off with something like this:
Jacob Aldridge closed his shop door and locked it behind him. He made his way along Wall Street and headed toward the harbor.
The merchants were already out, waiting to greet the new arrivals coming in from all ports of call. The sounds of the merchants hawking their wares thrilled Jacob as he walked along; commerce was in his blood and had been since his maternal ancestors had first come to this island a century earlier, since before they had built a wall along the street that now bore its name.
He rounded a corner and the harbor came into view—the tall masts of the newly arrived merchant ship dominating the lower Manhattan sky. Jacob’s heart quickened—aboard that ship was an opportunity not seen on this island since Peter Minuit had bought it for sixty guilder in trade. If Jacob played his cards right, his reward would be far greater than anything Minuit could ever have imagined.
In the second example, we learn everything we need to know about Jacob Aldridge’s world: that it’s in a New York of the eighteenth century with a history of Dutch settlement and trade, and of the centrality of commerce to Jacob’s personal life and professional aspirations. We know all of those things because we have been shown them in Jacob’s story, rather than told them about Jacob’s world. And in the process, we know Jacob even better.
Defining Your Characters
The same show-don’t-tell rule applies to defining your characters as well as defining your world. Too often, writers will tell us that their characters possess certain qualities or traits, rather than showing us those characters acting out of those qualities.
Maria was a genius—everyone said so. She’d been noticed as a smart kid ever since she was in grade school. At times ostracized for it, she nevertheless used her intelligence to obtain scholarships to the best schools and graduated at the top of her class. After graduation, Maria was recruited by the CIA as an analyst. There was no problem that Maria could not solve.
Maria could tell Petersen was on his way to see her. She recognized his distinctive gait from the hallway.
“What do you want, Petersen?” she asked, not even looking up from her work.
“Christ, how do you do that?” Petersen asked, knowing she wouldn’t answer. He put the document on her desk. “We intercepted this communiqué. We can’t even tell what it might be because we can’t identify anything that could indicate a line break or an organization to the data.”
Maria sighed internally; she was always being asked to make up for other people’s lack of creativity and insight. She looked over the page in front of her—a series of seemingly random numbers that took up the entire sheet. No obvious structure anywhere. Then she grabbed a pen and circled ten numbers out of the entire array.
“There’s where the line breaks are,” she said.
“It’s the Fibonacci sequence,” she responded, cutting him off. “1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-34-55… Each number is the sum of the two numbers before it. Those numbers aren’t a part of the array; they mark the boundaries for the data.”
Petersen was about to ask more but Maria had already lost interest and returned to her work. He muttered a quick—but still awed—“Thank you,” and walked out of the office.
The first example tells us how smart Maria is. The second example shows us Maria being and acting smart.
As noted above, too often, writers will do the first rather than the second. And in some cases, will even contradict what they’ve told us by showing their character acting in opposition to their stated abilities. There are plenty of stories, movies, and TV shows in which supposedly “smart” characters make stupid decisions.
The Power of Narrative
All of this points to the fact that it is the story that drives everything. We learn about the world and our characters through the narrative. We see what our characters do and how they do it. We experience their world as they experience it. We learn about them and along with them.
There will always be times when exposition is called for, times when a narrator or a character will have to explain something to the reader. But your writing will be more effective, more powerful, and more enjoyable for your readers if you let the story do the work—if you show them, not tell them.