One of the most egregious mistakes a writer can make—according to some, not most—is that a writer should not tell a story by simply narrating it. That was done in the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when narrators were seen as the third-person omniscient, frequently in use in novels such as Paradise Lost and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Flannery O’Connor, a prominent Southern writer in the 1960s, spoke very highly on the subject of fiction writing, being a short story writer herself. She said that people who do not understand the art of storytelling tend to compartmentalize a story’s elements, and this is very often done by Western writers simply because of the culture we live in. These writers specifically label their plot, theme, technique, etc., yet O’Connor explains that those who understand the nature of fiction write fiction so naturally that they do not need to rationalize their art; they just do it.
What O’Connor’s solutions are these: Good fiction portrays a person “who shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation.” It involves the “mystery of personality” and focuses on people and concrete situations, not problems and abstract issues.
For example, I may, like in Jane Eyre, portray my circumstances as I would see it as a maid. I might relay the scents and attractions I feel, the smoke burning in the upper room above me, while I stood dizzy from drowsy sleep, having been roused at five in the morning. The air around me would feel hot and dizzy, and as I heard the crackling of fire, the lights in my bedroom were nearly out, save for the soft blue light coming from the summer morning out my window.
These sights, sounds, and feelings would reiterate O’Connor’s general instruction that a writer ought not to simply say, “I was in my bedroom while the fire upstairs burned the room”; the writer would elaborate on all these sensations so as to draw the reader in.
Telling simply informs the reader of the situation, but showing invites them to experience the situation. Above all, according to O’Connor, “Fiction writing is…a matter of showing things.”