Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Show don't Tell

I've not written anything properly since my last attempt at opening my YA novel. Show don't Tell wasn't amongst my errors (this time), but I think it's good to keep returning to certain tools and revising them:

Posted by Motorpilot on Litopia:

Novice writers (and some professionals) often fall into the trap of "expositing" information instead of presenting it dramatically. Sometimes exposition is inevitable, or even desirable. Lloyd Abbey, in his brilliant SF novel The Last Whales, gives us exactly one line of human dialogue; his characters, all being whales, can't speak to one another, so the narrator must tell us what they think and do. Gabriel Garca Marquez can also write superb exposition for page after page.

Most of us ordinary mortals, however, need to dramatize our characters and their feelings. Otherwise our readers will tire of our editorials.

Consider the following expository and dramatic passages. Which more adequately conveys what the author is trying to show to the reader?


Vanessa was a tall woman of 34 with shoulder-length red hair and a pale
complexion. She often lost her temper; when she did, her fair skin turned a deep
pink, and she often swore. She was full of energy, and became impatient at even
the slightest delay or impediment to her plans. Marshall, her chief assistant,
was a balding, mild-mannered, nervous man of 54 who was often afraid of her. He
was also annoyed with himself for letting her boss him around.


Vanessa abruptly got up from her desk. A shaft of sunlight from the window
behind her seemed to strike fire from her long red hair as she shook her head
"No, Marshall! God damn it, this won't do! Didn't I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Vanessa, b-but--"
"And you understood what I told you, didn't you?'' Her pale skin was flushing pink, and Marshall saw the signs of a classic outburst on the way. She took a step toward him, forcing him to look up to meet her gaze; she must be a good three inches taller. He raised his hands in supplication, then caught himself and tried to make the gesture look like the smoothing of hair he no longer had. He felt sweat on his bald scalp.
"Vanessa, it was a--"
"It was another one of your screw-ups, Marshall! We're committed to a Thursday deadline. I'm going to make that damn deadline, whether or not you're here to help me. Now, am I going to get some cooperation from you, or not?"
Marshall nodded, cursing himself for his slavish obedience. Fifty-four years old, and taking orders from a bitch twenty years younger. Why didn't he just tell her to shove it?
"All the way, Vanessa. We'll get right on it."
"Damn well better." Her voice softened; the pink faded from her cheeks.
"Okay, let's get going."

Comment: A paragraph of exposition has turned into a scene: the portrayal of a conflict and its resolution. The scene has also prepared us for further scenes. Maybe Marshall's going to destroy himself for Vanessa, or poison her; maybe Vanessa's going to learn how to behave better. Most importantly, the authorial judgments in the exposition are now happening in the minds of the characters and the mind of the reader--who may well agree with Marshall, or side with Vanessa.
Here's another example:


Jerry was 19. Since leaving high school a year before, he had done almost
nothing. He had held a series of part-time jobs, none of them lasting more than
a few weeks. His girl friend Judy, meanwhile, was holding down two summer jobs
to help pay for her second year of college. Jerry controlled her with a
combination of extroverted charm and bullying sulkiness. Secretly he envied her
ambition and feared that she would leave him if he ever relaxed his grip on her.

"Hey, good-lookin'," Jerry said as he ambled into the coffee shop and took
his usual booth by the window.
"Hi," said Judy. She took out her order pad.
"Hey, I'm real sorry about what I said last night. I was way outa
"Would you like to order?"
"Hey, I said I was sorry, all right? Gimme a break."
"That's fine. But Murray says not to let my social life get in the way of
my job. So you've got to order something for a change."
He snorted incredulously. "Hey, I'm broke, babe."
She stared out the window at the traffic. "You can't hang out here all day
for the price of a cup of coffee, Jerry. Not any more. Murray says he'll have to
let me go if you do."
"Well, tell him to get stuffed."
"Jerry, be reasonable. I can't. I need this job."
"Christ, you already got the job at the movie theatre."
"That's nights, and it hardly pays anything. I've got my whole second year
at college to pay for this summer. Jerry, maybe we can talk about this after I
get off work, okay?"
"Yeah, right. See you Labor Day, then."
"Jerry, don't be a smartass. See you at four, okay?"
He got up, shrugging. "Yeah, sure. Guess I'll go over to the bus station
and read comic books until then." He glared at her. "Don't be too nice to the
guys who come in here. I find out you been fooling around with anybody, you know
you're in trouble, right?"
"Right, Jerry. I'm really sorry. See you later."

Comment: Again we have a conflict that promises to lead to further conflicts and their resolution. We want to know if Judy will ditch Jerry, or Jerry will smarten up. Their relationship reveals itself through their dialogue, not through the author's editorializing.

Note that both these examples involve a power struggle. Someone is determined to be the boss, to get his or her way. Most scenes present such a struggle: someone decides on pizza or hamburgers for dinner, someone chooses the date for D-Day, someone comes up with the winning strategy to defeat the alien invaders or elect the first woman president. We as readers want to see the resources thrown into the struggle: raw masculinity, cynical intelligence, subtle sexual manipulation, political courage, suicidal desperation.

Depending on which resources win, we endorse one myth or another about the way the world operates: that raw masculinity always triumphs, that political courage leads nowhere, and so on. Of course, if we are writing ironically, we are rejecting the very myths we seem to support. By using raw macho bullying mixed with a little self-pity, Jerry seems to win his power struggle with Judy. But few readers would admire him for the way he does it, or expect him to succeed in the long term with such tactics.

Think carefully about this as you develop your scenes. If your hero always wins arguments in a blaze of gunfire, he may become awfully tiresome awfully fast. If your heroine keeps bursting into tears, your readers may want to hand her a hankie (better yet, a towel) and tell her to get lost. Ideally, the power struggle in each scene should both tell us something new and surprising about the characters, and hint at something still hiding beneath the surface--like the insecurity that underlies Jerry's and Vanessa's bullying.

When applying show, don't tell, the writer does more than just tell the reader something about a character; he unveils the character by what that character says and does. Showing can be done by:

  • writing scenes
  • describing the actions of the characters
  • revealing character through dialogue
  • using the five senses when possible
Instead of telling:

Mrs. Parker was nosy. She gossiped about her neighbors.

the writer could show:

Turning the blinds ever so slightly, Mrs. Parker could just peek through
the window and see the Ford Explorer parked in the driveway. She squinted to get
a better view of the tall, muscular man getting out of the vehicle and walking
up to Mrs. Jones' front door. He rang the doorbell. When Mrs. Jones opened the
door and welcomed the stranger into her home with a hug, Mrs. Parker gasped and
ran to her phone.
"Charlotte, you are not going to believe what I just saw!" Mrs. Parker
peeked out the window again to see if the man was still inside.


Five years ago, John Meadows married Linda Carrington. Although both had grown
up in Brooklyn and didn't want to leave, John had accepted a job in Montana and
moved his young family west. He found he liked the mountains and open sky, but
Linda was frustrated and unhappy. This all became clear the night they attended
a party at their neighbors' house.


"I told you I didn't want to go to this," Linda said as she stood beside
John on their neighbors' steps. "It's just going to be as lame as every other
party we've been to since we got here."
"You used to love parties," John said, avoiding eye contact.
"Yeah, well, that was back in Brooklyn. But Montana isn't Brooklyn."
"No." He looked at the mountains, colored flame by the setting sun, the sky
he had come to love. Then he looked at Linda, glowering even before they went
inside. In five years of marriage, she had changed so much. They both had.
He pressed the doorbell.

Showing dramatizes a scene in a story to help the reader forget he is reading, to help the reader get to know the characters, to make the writing more interesting. "It is the difference between actors acting out an event, and the lone playwright standing on a bare stage recounting the event to the audience."

When to tell

"Show, don't tell," like all rules, has exceptions. According to James Scott Bell: "Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted.Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time. A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling. Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress.

For example, if Bob is a character in a story, he could do the following things:
  • Have an argument with his boss
  • Drive to his girlfriend's house
  • Have an argument with his girlfriend

The writer could show the arguments with Bob's boss and girlfriend, but tell the reader Bob drove over to his girlfriend's house without excess narrative. As long as nothing important to the story happens on that drive, then the writer need only tell the reader.

The writer may also want to use telling to reveal to the reader that the narrator of the story is not reliable. The narrator may say that Bob is a great guy, but later Bob reveals himself to be a jerk through showing. Then the reader can decide that the narrator of this story doesn't see Bob for who he is.

No comments: