Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Show And Tell

I have been quiet of late, which is not to say I haven’t been working.  For several months I found it quite difficult to focus on writing.  My time and my thoughts were co-opted by pressures from work, preparations for my and Kathryn’s wedding, developing an exercise regime so that my back problems from last year do not recur, and so forth. 

This is not to say I did nothing with regards to working on my story.   The process of writing and editing requires both physical and mental effort. 

Physically I had too much to do and too little free time to do it in.  Mentally, I have been thinking and internalizing realizations I had months ago.  Preparing for the time when the wave of demands on my time would recede and my labors could resume.

In recent weeks I returned to writing, and established a schedule I hope is self-sustaining.  

Recently I tested an insight I had into the writer’s adage, “show, don’t tell”.  I am pleased with the results.  Before explaining my insight, and the results, let me establish the fundamentals of both “show” and “tell”.

The Ease of “Telling” a Story

It is (relatively) easy to “tell” a story, to lay out in simple words what you want the reader to think or feel.   The problem is that the readers don’t actually feel those emotions, they just know they should.  Using “tells” gives your writing the emotional content of a computer algorithm.

When you write the words “John felt angry” or “Jane smiled in happiness”, the words “felt angry” and “in happiness” are “tells”.  

Almost anytime you use a word that directly represents an emotion or motivation the sentence or phrase is a “tell”.  It is at those times that you are explicitly telling the reader the emotions and motivations of characters.   By extension, you are telling the reader how they should react to those emotional states.

You aren’t engaging the imagination, you are dictating a reaction. 

You aren’t describing actions, you are informing the reader how they should interpret the scene. 

For that matter, you haven’t created a scene, just established a character’s current state.   It is a point with no direction or momentum.

The Difficulty of “Showing” a Story

To “show” a story requires  painting with words.  To create an image that clearly conveys context and emotion without stating either directly.

Instead of “John felt angry”, consider “John’s face turned red.  He clenched his fist and snorted like a bull.”

Instead of “Jane smiled in happiness”, consider “Jane tapped her feet in time with the pop song playing on the radio.  She looked out the window, saw red roses reaching for the sun, and smiled.”

Neither sentence above is great, but they do illustrate the key points about “showing” a story. 

It takes more words, more sentences, to “show” a scene rather than”tell” it.  

“Showing” requires a focus on actions, on details, to create an scene the reader can imagine.  From the imagination comes understanding of the character, and perhaps empathy.  From understanding and empathy comes engrossment, the desire to keep reading.

My Insight

“Showing” a story or scene  is always more powerful, more engrossing, than “telling”.  “Showing” a story is the preferred approach, hence the adage of “show, don’t tell”. 

But “showing” requires much more work and many more words.   It takes more time to write, to find the right way to describe a scene.  In some cases, it is difficult to find the right words to “show” something that you can “tell” in a few words.  

“Showing” can slow a scene down, make it drag when you want it to move faster.  Plus, when you “show” everything important details can become lost in a sea of words and images.

Ergo there must be a balance between the two.   A time to show, and a time to tell.  A time to dwell on details, and a time use a “tell” as a shortcut between more important moments.  Instead of “show, don’t tell”  the correct approach is “show and tell, each in their proper proportion and where they are most effective”.

What this Approach Led Me to Discover

With practice I have become more comfortable with “showing” and less reliant on “telling”.   I combined this with my earlier revelation about how I should sharpen the focus of my story. 

The result was much better characterizations, and a stronger pacing. 

I now write transitions between scenes as brief “tells”.  Summaries that cover only the essential facts needed.    A successful “tell” is one that is short, infrequent, and serves to either start a scene or transition to a new scene. 

“Tells”should underscore something that is being shown, or remind the reader of important information they were shown before.  “Tells” that fail these tests I  either delete or try to convert to “shows”.

Scenes of importance became “shows”.  Descriptions of actions and expressions that force me to reveal the characters  in ways that make them more real.  If it is worth spending more than a few words on a moment then it should be a “show”.  A visual play in which actions flow from the character’s nature combined with their situation.

I don’t claim that there are hard and fast rules for when to use a “show” versus a “tell” or that I have found a perfect mix between them.  But the insight I had  has demonstrably improved my fiction writing.   It takes longer to write each scene, and the words do not come as fast.  Nevertheless, I recommend experimenting with this approach yourself.    I think you will be pleased with the results.

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