Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Show Don't Tell

Notes on Craft

I have absolutely no idea how many times I've heard the phrase "show, don't tell." I have even less of an idea of how many times I've used it. It's become a critique admonishment that can be delivered quickly and shame a writer into silence. It's also something that for the beginning writer moving up in the world of writing can come with it's own set of problems.

In general, the admonishment is uttered (or jotted down in the margins) when a writer has over indulged in exposition. The phrase in itself, however, doesn't do much for explaining how to get around telling, so the quick fix is said to be show through action or dialog.

Good call. Except that this new directive leads to lengthy passages of dialog where one character tells another character background information that was previously in the exposition. And -- yikes! -- I think I'd rather get it in the narrative. This phenomena is particularly rife in genre writing where writers are pushed to "balance" narrative with dialog and therefore use the dialog to do the dirty work of backstory even if no one in real life would ever sit around and do that kind of information dump. It's even easier to spot in movies. Lesser screenwriters who keenly feel the inability to use narration will introduce a secondary character (someone who has known one of the characters for ever and ever and ever) whose sole purpose in the movie is to tell the lead some bit of the other character's history that he'd never say aloud in a million years.

Basically, making the characters say it aloud doesn't make it shown, not told.

But what gets trickier -- and what I've seen an acquaintance dealing with lately -- is even knowing when telling has become an issue. Because telling is not inherently evil. You're going to have to tell on some level at some point in the story. What the writer has to do is be subtle enough in waht she chooses to tell (and trust the reader) so that the reader can take all the bread crumbs left by the writer and reassemble them into the loaf.

You're gonna have to work with me on the bread analogy but I'm trying.

I recently read a short story by Alice Munro called "What Do You Want to Know For?" If you were to ask me now what the story was about I would tell you that the character was fascinated with mortality, and the histories of people as well as the natural landscape and the history of that landscape. In all likelihood, Munro didn't use any of those nouns in the story, they were just loaves of bread I had reassembled from the different bread crumbs she had shown me. The mausoleum, the cemetery hunting, the mammogram, the searching of county records, the doctor visits, the glacier geography lesson, the interviewing of church caretakers and families that have almost vanished from the county. All just pieces.

And if that was too ethereal for you I've got a quick and dirty trick to share as well: avoid stating emotions.

It made him sad.
She smiled happily.
He was depressed that morning when he woke.
She was thankful to them both.

A person could act sad in a hundred different ways, showing the character behaving in one of them advances the relationship between the reader and the character threefold what it would by simply telling the reader that the character was sad.

Does the quick and dirty rule apply to all writing situations? No. Of course not. But consider it the wax on wax off method of writing. You'll never have to write precisely this way, but if you practice not simply stating emotion then you'll be that much better equipped to block the urge to tell when the situation arises.

Side note: I have recently discovered there are people who honestly don't know that the "wax on, wax off" reference. Sure, there's always one person in a group that won't likely know it, but this was an entire room full of people who were kids when The Karate Kid came out. Sadness.

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