Sunday, 31 January 2016

RETRO-TUESDAY: WHAT SHOWING & TELLING REALLY MEAN

Hello, Dear Readers! Welcome to Retro-Tuesday - the first one in a long time! - a Zoë-Trope tradition in which I raid the blog's archives to find a nicely matured yet still juicy post that I think some of you may have missed the first time around, or may enjoy reading again, and drag it kicking and struggling back into the spotlight.

And the post we're revisiting today? Is a popular one from back in 2012:

RETRO-TUESDAY: WHAT SHOWING AND TELLING REALLY MEAN 


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. 

2 comments:

Phoenixgirl said...

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

Recently I had to write a bit where my hero writes to the mage who's at the top of the hierarchy of mages in the country to ask for his advice, and I was trying to decide whether to actually show him writing the letter or just mention that he'd done it.

It was this consideration that made me go with the longer "showing" scene, because it was an important part of his characterization. He's recently taken on a position high enough that it's perfectly fine for him to write to the top mage, but he doesn't really believe he's good enough for said position, and has trouble thinking of himself as anything other than a lowly novice mage. I felt like the reader needed to see him working himself up to writing this letter, because it's a step toward dealing with those self-esteem issues.

Zoë Marriott said...

Phoenix: I think choosing to show the *right* moments in a story really does significantly increase the empathy that your readers feel towards a character, and the story as a whole. But it's one of those unique, craft learning processes, figuring out which bits are important enough for that, even if they're not showy, flashy bits. And which scenes actually only need summarizing even if they seemed important when you thought of them at first.

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