Back with a doozy.
Show don’t tell 🙂
This might be the Tyson of writing advice. First up it seems to encompass many of the common rules we have already covered – adverbs are tell, dialogue tags are tell. After all both came from Elmore Leonard who said,
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story
But more than that it seems to both confuse and vex more than any other piece of advice. Even those writers who are happy to agree with paring down adverbs and tags and all the rest, start to spit when this one is raised. The main argument against returns again and again to this
A story is told.
And it is. All words in the end are tell. Buts that semantics isn’t it? We are quibbling. Show don’t tell refers to how a book is put together not whether or not is should be painted rather than written, surely?
Let me make it plain, I am a show off 😛 I have an inbuilt dislike of tell that predates any run in with the phrase. This in fact is one of what I call the Unbreakables – three effects that are integral to storytelling. That doesn’t however mean that I don’t sometimes want to scream when I see advice givers throw it around. It does seem to be horrifically misused, which is frustrating considering how much, if understood, it can enrich a story. Here’s my take on the most common misconceptions.
Show exists in place of tell.
All books are a balance. I don’t think it is even possible to have a book which is entirely show – and believe me, if anyone has given it a good try its me 🙂 On the other hand books which are all tell, or as near as damn it, do exist. In fact the earliest forms of written storytelling – perhaps because they were still evolving from oral traditions – could be said to be told.
Each writer must find their own balance, but in my experience most tend naturally towards tell. I’ve heard many say, I write the way I speak. The spoken word is the one we use most often so it is natural that the forms we employ here, instinctively, will bleed into our writing. However if you actually look at great oral storytellers it might surprise you to realise how much they incorporate show in their delivery – accents, gestures, facial expressions, direct speech – ie things we can literally see rather than being told. Often they use tell and show in conjunction to reinforce the point. And it is this blend that I think, when achieved, is the most effective.
All bestsellers use show not tell
Bollocks. Really just plain old bollocks. I could rattle off ten bestsellers right now who all use tell far more than show, I don’t think I could do the opposite. Writing advice and writing practise often seem very much at odds with one another. That might arise from the desire to teach good techniques rather than best selling ones, or it might be because most of those giving the advice have never troubled a best seller list themselves. I actually think in this case there are two specific reasons, which relate back to how misunderstood this advice is.
Action is show. Many imagine that anything actually happening is show, ie, a fight scene, a car chase, anything involving direct speech or specific movements, things being done – which drags into play yet another common rule, the admonition to only use the active voice. Its not wrong per se, its merely a very limited view and worse can lead to some truly terrible writing. I have spoken before about repetitive examples of ‘he walked, he opened, he entered…’ lots of lovely active sentences describing specifically what a character is doing. And you will find plenty of it in best selling pot boilers – they have just got a bit crafty and lopped of the heads of the sentences so they sound a bit less grating. Lee Child is the king of these fragmented action passages.
Action is part of show – it puts us in the moment and reveals what is occurring at a pace that makes it easier for us to both picture it and feel emotionally caught up in it. However I often skip these passages because they are far too long, repetitive and dull. It really doesn’t take much to build a picture in a readers mind and it is important to remember that what we are really interested in is what precipitated the action and its consequences – the internal rather than the external. Yet often in an attempt to avoid telling us how a character felt we end up being told a whole heap of stuff we just don’t care to know…
Which brings me to..
Show is about details. Again, not wrong as such, just highly limited and potentially misses the entire point of what show really is. Common examples are, don’t say he is angry, say the vein popped in his forehead, don’t say he was scared, say his blood ran to ice.. details once they have passed nicely into cliché can become tell… She spun on her heel, she turned white as a ghost..
However, the main problem with these aren’t that they are clichéd, its that they don’t show a thing. I have never seen a vein pop in anyone’s forehead, I’ve certainly not seen it and thought.. ooh she must be angry. So I am not in the scene, seeing or feeling what is occurring, because this is literary code, bearing no resemblance to reality. Think about it, when you know someone’s angry, you don’t actually think about how you know. And if you were to think about it, it would probably involve a very short list of very obvious details – she was shouting I’m really angry with you.. for example 🙂 Yet we eschew both of these because, well, they might be tell!
Some people have an amazing ability to pick out tiny details that just instantly bring a character to life. They have an eye to see those things most of us don’t even realise we are seeing – until they point them out to us. Envy them, attempt to emulate them if you can, but also accept that for most of us we know someone is angry when they shout, someone is hot when they sweat. A blend of both tell and show works fine in these instances, and we fare better if we keep the emphasis on pace and consistency.
Lastly the misconception that annoys me the most..
Show is easier than tell.
BOLLOCKS! Bollocks bollocks! and Bollocks!
Okay – first up I will admit, its far easier for me to write show than it is for me to write tell. Far. Hold my hands up to that. However, I am – I believe this wholeheartedly – very much in a minority. The vast majority of writers tend much more naturally towards tell. As pointed out above its how we speak, the most primary form of communication, so its entirely natural for that to continue when we sit down to write. Which makes show for most writers much harder. Its made even harder by the fact that they have to balance both and they don’t fully understand how. That balance troubles me too, unfortunately I’m on the other side of it – there isn’t much advice there. Some don’t fully understand why, though I suspect they need to read their own work more. It will tell them all they need to know, if they are willing to listen.
But when writers put down show as the easy option what they are really speaking to is the collection of clichés and action heavy formulas that litter bestseller lists. They think show is the easy reading option. This misses the entire point. Because when you are in real life, when a story is unfolding around you, there is no narrator to translate, to tell you where this path will lead, what side this character plays on, what their strengths are, their needs and desires.. there is just you trying to figure out what you’re seeing.. Tell is certainty. Tell is assurance. Tell is a money back guarantee. Show – show is realising you might get it wrong, show is letting your instincts run free unfettered by the fatherly hand of narration. Show is me preferring the bag guy to the hero. Show is the possibility of heartbreak without warning. Show is about living it and that doesn’t come with any guarantees.
(ETA: this is a big topic, especially for me as it is one I hold very dear to my heart. What I have said above only really begins to scratch at it. I will be looking at it in more detail later in my Unbreakables series – just in case you really really can’t get enough 😛 )