Friday, January 16, 2015

Complicating the Old Rule: Show, Don't Tell



Good writing isn't as easy as following a list of ten rules. All writers have heard the importance of learning the technique "show, don't tell." But in too many blog tips and how-to lists, I think the concept has become oversimplified to a quick-and-easy fix, as if changing an adverb to an action fulfills the quest for reader involvement.

I recently came across a writing handbook that suggested showing rather than telling a story and gave a short example:

Telling: "No, I won't go," Ron said angrily
Showing: "No, I won't go." Ron slammed down the phone.

Within the context of a story, this might work. As readers, we might have been feeling Ron's anger building for three paragraphs and the phone slamming is exactly what we would do too. But as an example of learning to show and not tell, I think it fails. And I see lessons like this too often. If the reader isn't feeling the same anger, the action of slamming the phone will be as ineffective as "Ron said, angrily." So what?

"Show, don't tell" isn't simply replacing a stated emotion with a physical action (Jillian felt sad/Jillian wiped a tear). It's the writer becoming so involved in the story that he or she stops telling it. The story begins happening around the writer; the story's world reflects the feelings and governs the actions. The reader is then involved in that world because the writer is involved.

I came across a passage from Elizabeth Chadwick's novel The Summer Queen. I would present this as a superb example of an author showing us the story as the character lives it rather than telling us what the author thinks the character feels about the story. By its close, I feel my breath tight, suffocating on the news.

      William broke the seal, read what was written, and turned to Alienor. “Madam, perhaps you should sit down,” he said, gesturing to a carved bench near the wall.
      She stared at him. Dear God, Louis was dead, she thought. She did as he suggested. Roses overhung the seat, heavy and red, their perfume filling each breath she took.
      A frown clouded William’s smooth brow. “Madam,” he said gently, “I grieve to tell you that Raymond, Prince of Antioch, has been killed in battle against the Saracens.”
      Alienor continued to stare at him. The smell of the roses intensified and the air grew so thick that she could barely breathe, and what air she did inhale was drenched with the syrupy sweet scent of flowers on the edge of corruption.
      “Madam?”
       She felt his hand on her shoulder, but it was a flimsy anchor.



I would suggest delving deeper into "show, don't tell" by reading good, respected writers who have proven their skills over time. I would look at passages in which you, as a reader, have felt the emotions deeply, have experienced a setting and become lost in it.

To show and not tell isn't as simple as phrase replacement. When I'm editing my work, I sometimes come across pages in which the story feels distant to me. I'm not involved. Nowhere in them do I necessarily find a pointless dialogue tag or have a narrator say, "Samuel felt confused." Yet, something is missing. Despite steering clear of what appears to be "telling," the story isn't immediate; it's not "showing" the world in an authentic, immediate way that makes me feel without thinking and know without being told.

Think back to when you were a kid playing pretend. Your parents call you for dinner and you suddenly realize that you have been gone from this world, lost in something else as true. Think of those day or night fantasies, those moments when we imagine a scenario and forget we're driving or become startled as someone speaks. I think writing requires that same state of being lost to one world and alive in another. When we pretend, we don't tell. We are doing. And in a good story, that doing is shown to a reader.

So, to those quick-and-easy writing tips, I would add just a little more: Don't simply slam down the phone. Be there to know the phone and the table it's on, to know the clipped, tense language that surrounds you, to know if the air is thin or heavy, to know the history of the relationship happening over the phone. Be in that place and time with that character so that what happens is inevitable.

Show the reader what you saw when you were there, so that they can be there too, without instruction, without clear guidance, but inevitably as they follow your character, as they read the next words.

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Patricia J. Esposito is author of the novel Beside the Darker Shore

Reviews of Beside the Darker Shore:  
GLBT Bookshelf
Two Lips Review
Goodreads/Thomas Olbert

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