The ability to show, not to tell

The ability to show

Writing is translating. The writer’s job -and skill- consists in transmitting to the reader impressions and sensations that, at first glance, are not made of words. The object of description is born of light, intensity, perfume, thickness, taste… It is the writer’s mission to translate this amalgam into words. Marcel Proust already said it: writing is a work of drafting.

Writing is to unite two parties that are invisible to each other: the reader and the writer. The latter, faced with the perception of his own emotions, reflections and sensations, feels the need to concretize it all in literature.

The narration, in which the writer recreates himself through words, allows the reader to be moved, to reflect, to feel. Perceptions do not have to be symmetrical in the writer and in the reader, but in the reader something has to move.

Often the discussion arises as to whether art should, or should not, disturb. The experience of centuries makes it clear that it must. In the face of art we must feel that we lose our tranquility.

A path of images

That’s right, this journey is a path of images. As Nabokov said, literature is an organization of ideas, not of images. Returning to the title of this post -and, by the way, paraphrasing Henry James, we must show rather than tell. What is the difference? You can say: Roberto is nervous. Or you can show it: Roberto bangs his pen on the papers on the table while shaking his head.

In the first case all the writer is doing is providing the reader with information that he may, or may not, believe. However, it is more normal that the reader has to see in order to believe. When we perceive – in this case, read – something concrete, visible, the brain is set in motion so that the words read connect with the reader’s individual experience, his memories.

The resource of visibility

Visibility is a resource at the writer’s disposal that he has to use -yes or yes- in the descriptions he makes. We must bear in mind that the narrative setting is a place where things happen, where important actions, emotions, sensations take place

When reading a fictional story, the reader’s narrative mind does not analyze every word. When reading, one does not walk word by word, fixing one’s attention on each word. During the reading process, entire paragraphs are absorbed.

During the reading process the reader is going to visualize the scene as a whole, just as the musician thinks of the chord, something that has to sound at the same time. It is the reader’s method of recreating and completing the scene.

When reading, the reader assimilates the words as visual elements. The way to do this is to look for references (This looks like… this character is like…). When reading, or rather, when assimilating a reading, we connect with our inner self, with a whole life experience made up of images, memories, sensations and emotions.

When reading, the sum of words, objects, details and actions push the reader to release his life experience. And not only is it released, it is also expanded. Emma’s house is the house described by Flaubert, my grandfather’s house in Ávila, which also had a fireplace, a farmhouse where I was on vacation in Beasain, the canonical houses with fireplaces (Little Red Riding Hood), the houses with fireplaces that I remember (Downton Abbey).

The characters are also visualized

And as it does with the settings, the visualization of the characters in the reader’s mind does not come through information but through emotions. Tolstoy tells us that Anna has thick eyelashes, a plump figure or a soft moustache. Even if we have read the novel, we do not remember any of that. Anna Karenina is hands: soft hands, white hands, delicate hands. Through the hands, she conveys to us an idea that we complete and give her the appearance of what, according to our criteria or the canon, represents delicate beauty.

Identification with the characters

Surely this is the greatest difficulty a writer must face: that the reader is able to identify with the characters of the novel he is reading. It will not be enough to observe the character from the outside. The reader will demand to be allowed to get inside the character, to have access to his thoughts, emotions and feelings.

If the writer -and then the reader- is able to get inside a character and understand him, to feel what he feels and then transcribe it into words, we will be able to better understand ourselves and those around us. In the same way, the reader will learn from the analysis and will follow a process similar to that of the writer: he will see the character in connection with his actions, he will identify with him, he will come to understand from inside and outside his motivations, the reasons for his changes, and in this way he will better understand himself and other people.