Monday, January 18, 2010

Show, don't tell

I've been in high revision mode these last couple of weeks, which for me always means reading and re-reading what I've written in the past before starting on the new stuff.

As I've been re-reading my original work, I've come across something interesting. Most of the stuff I'm reading is fantastic, just IMHO. I'm impressed that I've managed to create those words. They're lovely, lyrical, and evocative. They're...

Wait, wait, hold up. What am I writing again? I'm writing a war novel, in which my main character is a rough-as-guts farmer with limited education. And the old writing is... lovely? Lyrical? Oh, Houston. We have a problem here.

The problem is both the intrusion of authorial voice, and an abundance of telling instead of showing.

What is the latter, you ask?

I shall explain. When I sat down to write the now-completed draft three years ago, I had my story all planned out. I knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted the reader to respond. I knew which characters were going to be bad, and which were going to be good. And when I committed the words to the page, it was with great deliberateness. I wanted the reader to see everything that was in my mind when I imagined the scene. I wanted them to feel just exactly what I felt about the story. Essentially, I wanted to transplant my brain straight onto that page so that your reading vacation was taking place in my mind.

Sounds slightly logical, right?

Well, to a point- except that no matter how specific my details, no matter how evocative my words, I can't control what my readers are going to imagine when they pick up my story. I can't actually insert into their heads the image of the person I think looks most like Bill or Lionel, no matter how well I describe them. And unless I include a photograph of Edenvale Farm, people are going to be thinking about what they know when they imagine it.

If you try to control what people imagine by describing it too much, you can fall into the trap of what they call “telling, not showing”. What you want to be doing, ideally, is the opposite- SHOWING, NOT TELLING.

TELLING is where you explain emotions, descriptions, and actions where explanation is really not required. The explanation pulls the reader out of the story- it makes them remember they're reading a book, not living vicariously.

Bob was tired enough to feel all of his fifty-five years of age. He didn't think he could take much more of this crap.

SHOWING is where you present the reader with a fully-formed character, and enough description, dialogue, internals and action for them to fill in any blanks. You give them the opportunity to inhabit your character.

Bob slipped off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Those sons of bitches weren't going to get his goat this time, no matter what they did.

(In this latter version, we get a hint of Bob's age from his glasses; we know he's tired by his actions; and his internal thoughts tell us all we need to know about his mood/ state of mind without the author needing to step in and explain)

Telling is fine at face value, except often the end result is that you have a painted vase- something beautiful on the outside, but hollow on the inside. You sacrifice real emotion and gritty inner turmoil for nice packaging. The only books I've ever put down mid-read have taken this approach. The words are lovely and the words are well put-together, but the characters are at best forgettable, and at worst just completely dislikeable. They either have no flaws, or so many flaws that they're past redemption. These are exactly the thoughts I (and my beta readers) had about my characters when I sent out my early stuff. Each separate section looks good in isolation, but when you put it all together it doesn't make a good story.

So, if you're writing in first person or in limited third person, try to really inhabit your characters, and show the reader what you're seeing through the characters' eyes instead of telling them what's in your own imagination. It's a subtle difference when you explain it like that, but it makes a huge difference on the page.

Have faith in your readers to fill in the blanks.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes I don't even have faith in *myself* to fill in the blanks!
    Instead of telling the story as it happens, I find myself stopping way too often while writing the first time around, wondering if I've repeated this word or that one once too many times, adding so many square brackets that I wonder if the research is going to support the story - what if I look something up and it turns out I got it all wrong and now that scene is unusable? - or otherwise second guessing myself.

    This must be what those NaNo hosters call the dreaded middle bit of a novel. I think I'm mired in that very quicksand as we speak...