Showing and Telling in Memoir
In fiction writing, the first rule of thumb is “Show, don’t tell”. Narrative non-fiction (memoir writing) is a unique genre in that it combines showing and telling. You have to use a combination of both in order to get your story across to the reader but lean toward showing whenever you can. Learning to do this, makes you a better writer.
Why, you ask? Because showing draws your reader in to the story. They get what I call a “mind movie”. As I am reading a really good book, the words are tranformed into pictures in my mind. If I am not getting these pictures, I quickly lose interest in a book.
Details make a story. But I want to feel, hear, smell and see those details not just be told facts.
As an experiment, let’s list a few facts and then write them in two different formats — the first, telling and the second, showing. See which format you would prefer if you were the reader.
- A neighbor man
- hardly spoke
- looked scary
- behaved strangely
Telling would be literally listing the facts above in sentence like this:
“Our neighbor was a tall man. He rarely spoke. He didn’t seem to like other people because had no visitors. His face was scary. “
Pretty elementary, I know but it is how a lot of beginning writers write. They want to save the integrity of the facts but as they do, they end up making lists in their stories (much like a police report) rather than drawing us in and letting us come to the same conclusions just from reading their descriptive words.
Let’s try it again using the “show” technique:
In all the years he lived next door to us, I never heard him speak. We’d see him on the porch, rocking and watching the neighborhood kids at play or a large silhouette standing inside, looking out his front window. He reminded me of Lurch from the Adams Family. I often wondered about his story. Was he watching and waiting for someone to return to him or was he picking out his next victim?
In this paragraph, we have given the same information but in a way that the reader feels he/she is part of the story rather than just being told. We know:
- He is a neighbor – ”In all the years he lived next door to us”
- Tall - ”a large silhouette standing inside”
- Hardly Spoke – “I never heard him speak”
- Looked Scary – “He reminded me of Lurch from the Adams Family.”
- Behaved Strangely – “We’d see him on the porch, rocking and watching the neighborhood kids at play or a large silhouette standing inside, looking out his front window.” And “I often wondered about his story. Was he watching and waiting for someone to return to him or was he picking out his next victim?”
The second paragraph has more details and let’s the reader draw the conclusions the author is trying to get across without having to be told. Which is more interesting to read?