Hey, folks. It’s going to be a light-weight post this week, for two very good reasons:
- Last week’s post ate my brain. But at least now it’s written, so the next time someone asks me, “What’s really going on with publishing these days?” I can just give them a Mona Lisa smile and point silently in its direction.
- I broke my laptop last week (What do you mean, You’re not supposed to pick it up by the screen?), and it spent the weekend being dismantled on the kitchen table, with the result that its hinges aren’t broken anymore, but now the touchpad doesn’t work. So I’m on a backup laptop my sys admin dug out of the IT museum of his office, and I’m not familiar with this keyboard and I don’t have access to my bizillions of notes I write to myself all the time. Please bear with me.
I asked for suggestions on Twitter last Friday on what I should write about today, and Shane Arthur said, “Write about Show Don’t Tell.”
So I will.
Many months ago, I did a series on the advice column about exposition, which is telling, with the definition of exposition and fine distinctions between exposition and other types of narrative and whatnot. Then a few months ago I did a piece on the six degrees of show-vs-tell rated by quality here on this blog with regard to publishing and the history of literature and why you have to show. And a couple of weeks ago I did another piece on the advice column about how to judge when you really need exposition and simply can’t live without it.
But none of that contains a whole lot of instructions on exactly how to Show Not Tell, even if you wholeheartedly believe me.
Today let’s talk Show Not Tell. Showing is scenes. And scenes can be broken down into the three basic aspects of showing:
When you describe things in scenes—the setting, the environment, the objects, what the characters look like—you’re creating the fictional world in which your story plays out. You’re inviting your readers in. And, although writers used to be able to wax quite lyrical with description, readers nowadays are mostly antsy little devils, raised on television where all the description is delivered in the blink of an eye, so you have to be pretty canny with this.
The key to great description is the significance of your details. Describe everything in as great a detail as you can, then go through and decide which details are the ones that mean the most to these characters in this world at this very instant of your story. Which ones carry the greatest significance. Get rid of the rest, and use only those. Those are your telling details.
When you show action in scenes—the things your characters do, the ways in which they move, the places they go, the terrible, dreadful, portentous activities they get up to when they get there—you’re creating a physical experience for the reader of identifying with those characters. This is why action scenes must be crafted and written with such extraordinary care, especially nowadays when (ditto) your readers have been raised on television, which employs carefully-rehearsed choreography to keep audience investment in the characters under perfect control.
When you create dialog for scenes—the words that come out of your characters’ mouths in their incessant, futile, unending struggle to communicate and understand each other (as well as the internal dialog of their thoughts, but don’t use internal dialog, guys, because unless it’s the whole point of your story it’s just laziness)—you’re introducing your readers to your characters. You’re saying, “Reader, meet protagonist.” And your protagonist is saying, “This is who I am inside, what relationships I have to these other characters. These are the qualities I have with which to cope. These are the things I need.”
And the pleasure of meeting your characters is, fundamentally, the whole reason your readers are reading this story.
Now, when you write in exposition—when you tell your story instead of showing it—you’re putting yourself in front of your characters and interpreting what they go through for your readers.
Readers don’t like that. It’s talking down to them. They really prefer to interpret for themselves.
But when you strive to write always, always in scenes—when you show your story instead of telling it—using these three aspects of description, action, and dialog, a funny thing happens. Your characters come alive. You, the narrator, disappear, and your readers are suddenly in the room (or on the train or hanging from a parachute or running across a plain) alongside your characters. They’re watching, they’re identifying, they’re listening. . .and all of this adds up to an experience: the experience of your story.
Give that to your readers. That’s why they read fiction.
#EDITINGCHAT: This Thursday, noon to 1:00 pm PST. That’s 1:00 pm MST. 2:00 pm CST. 3:00 pm EST. And, I believe, 8:00 pm GST for all you lovely limeys.