Showing vs. Telling: A Cognitive Approach

Coloured bottles with ripple, vignette and maskMy mother says that I talk in riddles, and she’s more correct than I like to admit most of the time. I do have a tendency to state the facts that lead to what I’m trying to say, and then leave off the bit where I actually say it.

I didn’t develop this tendency by accident. As a writer of fiction, I’ve been trained to ‘show’ information to my readers rather than ‘tell’ it to them. On one level, this is a matter of choosing vivid imagery and using efficient language. On another, more philosophical level, this is about asking my readers to understand my writing differently than they understand other kinds of prose.

When I write a technical or legal piece, it’s absolutely my business to ‘tell’ my reader what I want to say. My readers are busy, and I have a lot of information I need to get across. I take pains in these instances to walk my reader through the process of understanding my ideas. I spell out the premises and conclusions of every argument, and I make every effort to spare my reader the task of digesting my information.

When I write a work of fiction, on the other hand, I keep in mind that my readers want to go through a couple of extra cognitive steps to understand my ideas. Although I need to provide enough information that my readers can pick up an accurate picture of what I’m saying, part of the fun of reading a work of fiction comes from the unconscious process of ‘connecting the dots.’

This isn’t to say that your fiction needs to be enigmatic or so puzzling that your readers could spend all day trying to figure out what you’re getting at. Indeed, it shouldn’t take more than a moment of thought for you reader to fill in the gaps between the facts you present. When you find the right balance between too much and too little explicitly stated information in your prose, your readers will have all the delight of solving a riddle without having to put in much effort at all.