Monday, November 16, 2009

SHOW versus TELL – Part 1

Make your characters blind, deaf and dumb (well, sort of).

No, I'm not suggesting you write a story where the only characters are Ray Charles, Helen Keller and Marlee Matlin.  Although, now that I think of it, that would be quite the writing exercise, wouldn't it, to create a scene in which the three of them interact?

I'm merely suggesting that a reader doesn’t really care what characters see, hear, feel, etc, in the most direct sense of it.  In other words, she doesn't want you, dear author, to tell her that the character saw something.  She wants you to show her in such a way that she can see what the character sees, right along with him, at the very moment he sees it.  She wants to experience it as the character does.  She doesn't want to hear from the author, after the fact, that the character saw it.

This is truly the essence of storytelling.  Perhaps we should coin a new, more appropriate word: storyshowing.

The first step in eliminating excessive telling from your story is to find all instances such as those I list as "triggers" below, and to replace them with sequences that show instead.

She heard, he saw, I thought, we listened, they noticed, she felt, he looked, I peered, we smelled, they anticipated, she observed, he imagined, I wondered, I knew, etc.

NOTE: Like all "rules" of writing, this is not a 100%-er.  You may have occasion to use these phrases in your story, and to do so appropriately.  However, these should be the exceptions, not the rules.

I call these phrases "triggers" precisely because they should trigger a self-review.  If you catch yourself using these phrases as you write, stop and consider your options.  Once you've completed the initial draft of your piece and you're ready to self-edit (please tell me you self-edit), find all the instances you missed the first time around of these types of telling, and determine if you can better show what happened rather than tell that something happened.

There's a whole lot more to the "SHOW versus TELL" discussion, which I'll address in future posts, but this is a simple, effective place to start.

Now, let's review a series of specific examples from pieces I've edited or reviewed.  As always, I shall keep confidential the authors' names (I'll refer to them simply as Author) and story titles to protect the not-so-innocent. :)

BAD: I could feel the intense heat radiating from the smoldering hulk.
      Note: In a first-person narrative like this one, Author is clearly in the character-narrator's POV.  Thus, if Author mentions "heat radiating," the reader already knows it's because the character "feels" it.  Not only should Author not tell us (show us instead); Author doesn't need to tell us.
GOOD (Simple): Intense heat radiated from the smoldering hulk.

BAD: She heard the crashing waves of an incoming tide and she saw the gleam of whitecaps under the stars.
      Note: Not only does Author tell us that (rather than show us what) the character heard and saw, Author does so in a wordy way.  Note how, in the alternative below, I cut the word count from the original 19 to a more concise 11.
GOOD (Simple): Waves crashed on the shore and whitecaps gleamed under the stars.

BAD: She saw a wound at his hairline, deep and ragged.  She peered closer and didn’t feel the horror she expected.  She saw a portion of the white skull.
      Note: First, of course, are the various triggers: saw, peered, feel, and saw again.  Second, "white" is unnecessary in "white skull"—everyone knows the color of human skulls.  Third, although the scene teases at an intense, gruesome image, its weak construction fails to deliver.
GOOD (Detailed): A deep and ragged wound pierced his hairline, and a portion of his skull protruded from his scalp, laced by tattered skin and tissue.  Horror lingered at the edge of her mind, yet the grisly scene compelled her to investigate closer.

BAD: I knew then that there would be no more looking back to the future.  My destiny lay ahead of me in the past.
      Note: Author almost—almost—creates a compelling paragraph here.  The first problem is the telling trigger: I knew.  The second problem is that it's wordy and awkward.  Some simple tightening, along with a simple showing rather than telling, makes all the difference.
GOOD (Simple): There would be no looking back to the future.  My destiny lay ahead of me in the past.

BAD: He felt the wolf pack curl around him and his grandmother, and when he looked up, he saw his mother and his baby brother sleeping peacefully among them.
      Note: We have the usual triggers here: felt, looked and saw.  We also have redundancy: "he looked up" before "he saw."  Finally, we can trim back on the word count, from 28 to a more concise 19.
GOOD (Simple): The wolf pack curled around him and his grandmother, and his mother and baby brother slept peacefully among them.

BAD: "Come Fire," he murmured before each life breath he blew.  "Wake Fire," he whispered as if into a lover's ear and a timid crackle he heard.
      Note: Set-up: Author uses "Fire" as a character; thus, Author capitalizes it as a name.  The first thing that struck me was the length of the dialogue tags, which feel forced and awkward.  By combining the tags into a single dialogue lead, the reader will better hear the tone of voice and emotion.  Finally, Author ends with a classic telling trigger: he heard.
GOOD (Detailed): He murmured before each life breath he blew, as if whispering into a lover's ear.  "Come, Fire, and wake."  A timid crackle provided his first reward.

BAD: John looked at the sack with uncertainty.  “I thought we would be attempting another animal first?”
      Note: The first sentence, the dialogue lead, is a perfect example of where we writers must earn our keep.  Most writers, and a fair share of editors, would think nothing of that sentence, and Author might be fine leaving it be.  However, it is all telling.  Now, let me make clear that some telling is fine, but you should always consider a situation like this an opportunity to engage the reader.  The keys here are "looked at" and "with uncertainty."  Author could have run him through one or two brief mannerisms here—I'm talking about body language—that clearly shows John's uncertainty to the reader.  The telling is… well, dull; a little in the story is fine, but every reader has his own boredom threshold, so it's always risky.  When you show the reader, you pull her into the scene, you engage her, and that's interesting for her.  Author needed to stretch a bit.  Here's what Author devised as an alternative.
GOOD (Simple): “I thought we would be attempting another animal first?”
      Note: Yep, Author decided (rightly so) that the dialogue flowing between the two characters of the scene—their actual words—said all that needed to be said.  The dialogue lead was unnecessary, and it interfered with the scene, so Author simply cut it—a good choice.  However, for the sake of illustration here, let's assume that Author still needed to paint the scene and show John's uncertainty.  Here's how Author could have done it.
GOOD (Detailed): John bounced his leg up and down and nibbled on his lip.  "I thought we would be attempting another animal first?”

BAD: The lighting was dim and the only sound he heard was the piped in elevator music that played in a seemingly endless loop.  He could hear Karen Carpenters, “Close to you” over the relentless rain tapping on the ceiling of his cell.
      Note: Note the weak word choices (was [2], seemingly, could) and the usual triggers: heard and could hear.  Once again, Author should trust in the character's ("he") POV and just show the reader—paint the scene.
GOOD (Simple): Dim lighting deepened the sullen mood as piped-in elevator music played in an endless loop.  Karen Carpenter's Close to You accompanied the relentless rain that tapped on the roof of his cell.

To sum up:
1)       Do not tell the reader that something happened.
2)       Do show the reader what happened.
3)       Allow the reader to see, hear and feel it as it happens, so that she may experience it at the very moment the character does, thereby sharing in the emotion and impact of the moment.
4)       This mechanism, more than any other, draws a reader right into the story as though she's a spectator at the scene.
5)       The difference may be quite subtle at times, but it's often the key to making a reader say, perhaps for reasons she's not even consciously aware of, "I like this story."  If you fail, she might instead say, "Eh, this story didn't really do it for me."

'Til next time, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

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