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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

WHAT SHOWING/TELLING REALLY MEAN

Hello, my dearest loves! I hope you all had a lovely weekend. I'm starting to feel the strain of my 'holiday' from writing - goldfish would be ashamed of my attention span, and I'm as grumpy as a badger - so I thought I'd soothe my cravings by doing another really long writing related post.

I'm going to pretend those groans of 'No! Mercy!' were cries of 'Yay! Yes, please!' and proceed. Okay? Okay.

You're all well aware by now that the plethora of so-called 'rules' about writing which are splashed all over the internet drive me up the wall. They're almost always misapplied and misunderstood, and even the ones that started out as common sense now generally cause more harm than good. One of the most common rules I see - and the one that probably annoys me most - is Show Don't Tell. Mainly because it's flat out wrong. You cannot write *any* story, even the most action-packed, fast-paced story, without telling. You'd end up with a book that was a million words long and incredibly boring. A lot of stuff in almost every story does not NEED to be told.

The advice should be: Show Where Appropriate And Tell Where Appropriate. But that isn't nearly as snappy, and what's more, makes it clear exactly what the problem with the SDT mantra is: it's not always so easy to know just when you should show and when you should tell.

Figuring out when to show and when to tell (and how to distinguish between the two) is a big part of improving the quality of your writing. But there's no easy way to do it. The fact is that every writer choses to show or tell different parts of their story depending on what's important to them. What's more, their methods of showing and telling differ vastly. These choices make up a part of your individual style as writer.

Writer A might chose to show action with detailed, loving scenes, but tell most of their characters dialogue through short summaries of the information exchanged. Writer B might show a lot of their characters interactions with beautiful, naturalistic dialogue, and skip the action, merely telling us what happened in a quick paragraph and moving on.

Or, more subtly, this second writer might WANT to skip the action, but realise that doing so with a piece of pure telling would rob the story of a dramatic pay-off that it required. So the writer might make an effort to show at least part of the big fight - but they wouldn't make it the centre-piece of their plot. This writer would always come up with stories in which the pivotal character moments and choices came during arguments, conversations and other pieces of dialogue.

Fans of this writer's books would be the type that are into reading about relationships rather than fights, and therefore if an editor were to come along and convince that writer into suddenly 'showing' the action scenes in much more depth and detail, and making the action a bigger part of the story, they would actually be doing a disservice to those readers - and the story that the author originally wanted to tell.

The fact remains though, that there are some things which must be shown. Too many characters fall utterly flat because the writer seems to be incapable of showing the reader who they are. It's no good telling us (or having the character tell us, if the novel is first person POV) that the main character is a kind, quiet and studious person if, throughout the entire story, they never think about anyone but themselves, never display any hesitance to talk or get involved, and never so much as think about picking up a book.

I don't mean that you can't take characters and plunge them into situations which put them out of their depth, challenge them, and force them to develop new skills. In fact, that's just what you *should* do (see last week's post!). But you need to show - in their unique reactions to the various trials they endure - that they possess the traits you've chosen for them. You can TELL us that someone is kind and quiet all you like - you can have them tell us that, and all the other characters around them repeating it - but if their actions don't SHOW that? Then they AREN'T.

It's bad enough if this character whom you've told us is so kind actually shows us behaviour which indicates they're self-obsessed, judgmental and catty. But at least then they have a personality of some kind. What is even worse is where a character displays no real personality traits at all, other than always somehow acting in exactly the way that the plot requires them to act in order for it to keep proceeding.

When this sort of disconnect between telling and showing happens, at best it starts to feel like the writer doesn't know their character (or that the character doesn't know themselves). At worst? The character fails to feel like a person at all. They die on the page, and the illusion of life and reality which it is the writer's job to foster dies too. We're left with black marks on a page - which is all a story is, after all, if it can't awaken the reader's imagination.

I'm going to give you an example of what telling in characterisation looks like and how you can fix it with some fairly simple showing. And to do this I'm going to use Twilight. Why? Well, firstly because this is one of those books where there's a really obvious disconnect between what the character tells us about herself (and what the other people in the story say about her) and her actual actions and traits as shown in the story. But also because I can't really figure out how to show you this without using a real example, and Stephenie Meyer cannot possibly be harmed or upset by my using her book as an example of bad writing like some other authors (who are even more guilty of this) might be.

So. Bella Swan. We're told that she cares about her dad a lot but finds it hard to express this, as does he. This is important in terms of characterisation because late in the story Bella is forced to deliberately hurt her father in order to protect him - to finally express herself to him, but in a really cruel and deceptive way - and that moment means nothing if Bella and Charlie don't care deeply for each other.

You can see Smeyer trying to set up the unspoken but deeply felt relationship developing between Bella and her dad via short bursts of telling in Twilight (because she reserves almost all her showing for Edward) but it doesn't really work because we never get to see it. Thus that moment when Bella hurts Charlie, which should be a heart-wrenching, real life consequence of Bella's willingness to sacrifice herself for her fairytale romance with Edward, does fall flat. Which is a shame; it would only have needed one or two good pieces of showing to fix this.

Here's an example of Bella telling us about her and her dad's interactions: 
Charlie seemed suspicious when he came home and smelled the green peppers. I couldn't blame him - the closest edible Mexican food was probably in Southern California. But he was a cop, even if just a small-town cop, so he was brave enough to take the first bite. He seemed to like it. It was fun to watch as he slowly began trusting me in the kitchen.

There's nothing wrong with this piece of writing per se, but it doesn't achieve what it's really supposed to, which is to give us a concrete feeling for these two quiet yet profoundly emotional people who are tentatively connecting as a father and daughter. Unfortunately, Bella never really comes across as a quiet, profoundly emotional person in the story - overdramatic and ineffectual come closer to the mark. Again, that's because of the disconnect between what the author tells us and what she shows us.

But what if we were to show this scene instead? It would end up a lot longer than this neat paragraph (and take us away from the constant refrain of EDWARDEDWARDEDWARD in Bella's brain) but it might go some way toward giving the reader a sense that Charlie and Bella, and their relationship, actually *are* what Smeyer TELLS us they are. It would make Bella's actions in deliberately hurting Charlie truly painful for the reader, it would give us an understanding of just how perilous her decision to pursue Edward is, how strong her love for him must be. Hell, it might even allow us to like Bella a bit more.

So how do we do that?

Let's look at what that paragraph is TELLING:

1) Bella's cooking and Charlie is suspicious.

2) Charlie tries the food.

3) Bella's pleased and amused that Charlie is gradually coming to trust her in the kitchen.

Now, what I think Smeyer was attempting to SHOW us here, was:

1) Charlie doesn't know Bella very well yet, which is pretty sad for a father and daughter. He doesn't trust her to be able to cook something unfamiliar to him, especially since her mother is apparently an awful cook. But despite this, we can assume that Charlie sits down in the kitchen and lets Bella serve him.

2) Bella gives Charlie the food. Charlie, who is a brave man (Note: lay off small town cops, Smeyer! They have to deal with plenty of traumatic stuff, trust me) and who probably doesn't want to hurt Bella's feelings, especially since they're just developing a relationship, tries the food.

3) Charlie likes the food, or at least makes sure to give Bella the impression that he does, which is sweet of him because he's not a demonstrative man or one who is good at expressing himself. Bella is happy with his approval and the fact that he has actually shown it (her mother, who seems like a pretty negligent parent, probably forgot to show Bella this kind of appreciation).

How do we make all that stuff explicit and accessible to the reader? How do we SHOW it instead of telling it? It's actually quite simple. Here's an alternate, showing version of that paragraph which I knocked up in about ten minutes (apologies for cliches and obvious mistakes).
"Hey, Bells." Charlie stopped dead as he came into the kitchen through the back door. He sniffed the air warily. "You're cooking again. Ah...what exactly is that?"

I turned away to hide my smile at his suspicious look. "Green peppers." 

I heard a faint sigh, and my smile got wider as I busied myself plating up the food. Behind me, my dad was taking off his coat, putting his gun in the drawer, and then pulling out a chair at the place I'd set for him at the kitchen table.

"Are you hungry?"I asked, glancing at him over my shoulder. 

He made a helpless shrugging motion. "Sure."

It was hard to keep a straight face as I added some extra to his plate and carried it over. I went back to the counter to make my own plate, keeping on eye on Charlie as I did. He stared down at his plate for a moment, brows wrinkling, then glanced at me. I met his eyes steadily, and he sighed again, slumping in his seat a little as he reached for the fork. He cut a generous piece of enchilada, closed his eyes, and stuffed it in.

About three seconds later his eyes popped open again. He chewed thoughtfully. "This is... this is actually pretty good."

I carried my food to the table and sat down opposite him, not hiding my smile anymore. "It's one of my favourites. I thought you'd like it."

Charlie was digging in now, ploughing through his full plate. He really was hungry. "It's great, Bells! You're a much better cook than...ah... "

"Thanks," I said, rushing to fill the gap when his voice trailed off. "I've been cooking since I was about five."

He flashed a sudden brilliant grin at me, suddenly looking years younger. "I guess it's hard to order takeout when you're five."

"Oh, I tried," I muttered. 

Charlie laughed, a low, muted chuckle that sounded a little rusty with disuse. "Well, you can cook for me anytime."
I could feel my cheeks going tomato red, and I ducked my head to stare at my glass of water.
Oh God, I'm so moved by this it actually brought tears to my eyes. Charlie! Bella! You sweet, crazy kids! JUST HUG! *Weeps*.

Ahem.

Yeah, you can see that the showing is... long. Much longer than Smeyer's original paragraph of telling. But it accomplishes SO MUCH MORE. Instead of a few bland lines that impart information but no emotion, we now have something which gives us a moment of real connection between these two and highlights how very similar they are, and how much they could grow to love and rely on each other. Charlie is adorable and Bella's not only displayed an actual (if somewhat dry and restrained) sense of humour, but also empathy toward's Charlie's feelings for her mum, and pleasure with Charlie's consideration for her. These things aren't my inventions - they're all implied in the text, but because we don't SEE them in Smeyer's version, they don't have any impact.

If something like this scene - and there are a dozen places where it could have happened, and a dozen different ways it could have been written - had actually been in the book, wouldn't we have liked Bella ten times more, and felt so much more invested in Charlie and Bella's emerging father/daughter relationship? Even if it only happened *once*!?

This is why Show Don't Tell has become such a writing mantra. And even though this advice is now widely overused and misunderstood, in some cases it still holds true. Telling may take one paragraph and showing one page - but that one page of showing may work hard enough that you can cut out a dozen paragraphs of telling throughout. So bear showing in mind, not just for big fat action scenes, but when you're trying to demonstrate relationships and characters.

If there's anything you truly need your readers to FEEL? Show it. 

15 comments:

Emma Pass said...

YES. To all of this. I struggled with show/tell for a long time, and tried to 'show' everything, which led to me writing the longest, rambliest, most confusing stories evah.

My breakthrough came when I read a book by a someone who'd worked at a film studio, who said to think of your stories as films – SHOW the scenes, and TELL the bits in between to get from one to the other, a bit like a narrator doing a voice over. That made it much easier for me!

Zoë Marriott said...

Emma: Heh! I know just what you mean! I think *everyone* struggles with this. Not just knowing when to show or tell but knowing exactly how to pick telling out from showing (sometimes you're switching backward and forward every other line!). And half the time when I see someone criticise another writer for 'telling' it's actually not telling at all - or else it's a perfectly decent piece of telling in the right place.

So much depends on your unique voice, too. Robin McKinley does a LOT of telling in her books, but her voice - her lyrical use of language and totally unique way of expressing things - makes those sections as absorbing as her action scenes. This idea that telling = bad and showing = good is just silly.

Lucy Coats said...

Yes, yes, and a million times yes. I should be doing writing work right now (handcuffed to the computer, AntiSocial turned on yadayadayada deadline), but a Zoe blog is a perfect distraction/procrastination tool. After all it's about WRITING! Ahem....

The SDT mantra is something a lot of people are scared of, and don't really 'get', and it takes skill to get it right, as you've proved so perfectly above. (How I wish that Twilight HAD been given the 'Marriott Makeover'.) Your Robin McKinley reverse example also shows that SDT isn't a hard and fast rule for everyone. I'll be sharing this widely, so thank you, Z.

Zoë Marriott said...

Lucy: I'm sure reading a writing related post counts as work. Or motivation. Or SOMETHING, at least...

You know, sometimes I'm tempted to take on a straight up paranormal romance (rather than the involved epic urban fantasy that the trilogy is) just to show that books like that can be *decent*. They don't NEED to be badly written, cliched, and populated by spineless passive heroines and arrogant borderline abusive heroes. I'd like to get my hands on some of the most annoying tropes and just subvert the HECK out of them. But I think my editor might cry if I switch genres again on her so soon...

kathryn evans said...

Great post - have to say it's a lot more fun for the writer too - so much easier to get into your characters head than skating over the surface...

Zoë Marriott said...

Kathryn: Exactly! This one of the things I was complaining about in last week's post - books where you feel like you're skating right over the surface of all the events because you never get to see the meat of the character's reactions. It only takes a big of judicious showing in just the right places to fix that.

Kate Larking -Astres said...

Great post! :)

Jessica said...

I gave a presentation once on the rules of storytelling. My opening slide was the quote from Pirates of the Caribbean about them being more like guidelines than rules. For every so called rule, there are circumstances when you want to break them.

Showing is really, really important. I read a short story once that read like a synopsis of a novel. It was all telling. Every paragraph could have been a chapter if the author just bothered to show anything that was happening. The end result was dreadful.

But, on the other hand, there are times when you want to convey a lot of information very quickly so that you can get on to the next point. Telling something can let you skim over long periods of time in order to get on with the plot.

Sometimes you see stories where the author decided to both show and tell. I started a book that I couldn't bring myself to finish because the opening chapters were so bad. In the first chapter, the main character was described as clumsy about three times. The author also showed this. She fell down the stairs on the first page and tripped over someone about two pages later. We didn't need to be told she was clumsy when we were being shown it. One or the other would have worked. Together, it just felt patronising.

Zoë Marriott said...

Kate: Thanks :)

Jessica: I do think that the focus on showing as 'good' and telling as 'bad' is a false dichotomy, though. I've seen books which could have been improved a great deal by less showing. Books where the pacing was ridiculous because the authors/editors were determined there would be no telling even if that meant rambling on pointlessly and showing events and interactions which in no way added to plot or characterisation. Books where people attempted to show things which CANNOT be shown, or would have been far better told.

You can't actually *show* what someone is feeling, for example. You can show the outer symptoms of this - tears springing to the eyes, face going read, hands clenching, or whatever - but each of these symptoms is highly ambigious. They could mean that someone is happy, sad, furious, embarrassed. What's more, insistance on SHOWING these symptoms instead of simply writing 'Helen was shocked' often chokes off original writing and leads to cliches. Not everyone 'gasps' or 'goes white' with shock, but if you're prevented from telling the reader that Helen is shocked because you think all telling is bad, all you have LEFT is the gasp or that change in colour; those are the only reactions that everyone will understand come from shock. So rather than being able to concentrate on describing how Helen's particular shock feels to HER, and hopefully coming up with something meaningful, you focus on describing the generic outer effects of the shock (the gasp, the blanch) which are surely the *least* interesting things about how the character feels.

Writers can do something that no actor can go, and that is to tell us what is actually happening to someone's heart, soul and mind within a story. Actors would kill for that ability! We mustn't give it up in our quest to imitate the immediacy and drama of film and TV.

Laura Mary said...


Ha! Great minds think alike – as soon as you started talking about characters displaying the opposite character traits to what we’ve been told I was thinking 'Bella Swan, Bella Swan, Bella Swan...'
;-)

The best advice on showing/telling I think I’ve read was in Nicola Morgan’s Write to Be Published and was something along the lines of ‘Show, don’t tell... unless of course telling works better. Then Tell.’
So that cleared that up then!

I find it has a lot to do with the rhythm and pacing of a story; sometimes you need to whiz along with some telling, at other times you need to slow down and show what’s happening!

Emma I like the film analogy! That’s a really helpful way of thinking about it 

Phoenixgirl said...

And too much showing can also create confusion about which events are actually important. The other day I was writing a bit where my heroine has a street urchin deliver a message for her, and I started off describing her walking down the street looking around, and her eye falling on a suitable kid, and what he was doing, and how he reacted to her calling him over...

And then I realized that it was all really unnecessary. This incident had nothing to do with the rest of the plot, and by going into such detail, I was making it seem like it was going to be important. I ended up reducing it to a single sentence, which I think works much better.

Laura Mary said...

@Phoenixgirl I have found myself doing a similar thing - in my case detailing a scene that I am actually quite bored by! And if I'm bored *writing* it, how will anyone survive reading it!!!!
Snip, snip, snip.

Zoë Marriott said...

Laura: Exactly. There just aren't any hard and fast rules because writing is both an ART and a CRAFT and you must always do what is right for the story you want to tell. If you can pull it off, then do it. Half the world may queue up to tell you that you're wrong, but you only need one agent to believe in you and one editor to decide to publish you - then the readers get to decide. And as J K Rowling proved, they often disagree with the publishing establishment!

Phoenix: Ach, you are So. Right. I read this book where the heroine and her best friend go on a shopping trip to get her a dress for her birthday party. The heroine's supposed to be in constant danger, being hunted by these awful monsters, but she wants to put that aside and have a 'normal day'. We get excruciating details about every bit of their day, the labels on the clothes they buy, the restaurant they eat lunch at. All the time I'm keyed up, WAITING for the point of this. Surely *something* will happen? A warning, a portent, a battle? If not that, some useful conversation with the friend that will help the heroine work something out? Even just some meaningful piece of characterisation? NO. I cannot even express how frustrated I was when none of that endless detail payed off in any way. There was no point showing the shopping trip at all. I nearly threw the book across the room. It was only the fact that it was on my ereader that restrained me!

batgirl said...

I'd just like to add in the advice I had from my agent (yes, actual agent who sells books to publishers) on the weekend: I need to show less, tell more, and add infodumps. All in the service of improving the pace of the story.

Zoë Marriott said...

Batgirl: Did she really, B.? Ha! That's one in the eye to Women With Websites isn't it? And my editor was the one telling me that I ought to start The Night Itself either with my heroine waking up or with a dream - all capital offenses according to most writing advice mavens.

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