We Need to Talk About Show Don’t Tell: Part 3

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Perhaps the most commonly cited myth surrounding Show Don’t Tell is the belief that it automatically requires more words. Returning to Wiki’s entry, it cites two well known writers both of whom claim the advice should be followed judiciously, for the reason that to do otherwise would affect the pace, flow and word count adversely.

Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. ~ James Scott Bell

This returns us very definitively to the notion that show don’t tell is a sentence level technique, not an effect, and a very limited one at that. The most common advice will offer up admonitions that dictate how you should approach and construct your scenes on a basic,  syntactic level,  much as Chuck Palanuik advises:

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use….In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling ~ Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs

It isn’t that I would disagree with his overall aim. Adding sensory detail can enrich any text and even, I agree (which I’m sure he is relieved to know) stand in  effectively for some sentences that might well be filtered through a ‘thought verb’ and labelled tell. Its that his examples return us to the notion of expansion being the inevitable result of Show.

Instead of saying: Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.” ~ Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs

These are tricks which can be handy to learn, but where, when, and how  you apply them to your work, or even whether you apply them at all, is entirely up to you, the author. They may make something as nebulous as Show Don’t Tell can feel, much easier to grasp, but they’re nothing more than a small part of a much larger concept and if, as seems to be the case, this is where understanding ends, are potentially very limiting, especially if they involve banning a class of words. A ban on anything, however temporary, can lodge in a writer’s head like a splinter from the Snow Queen’s mirror. And if you don’t get that reference, read the book! My all time favourite fairy tale.

In short, there are no short cuts. But you can still cut your writing short.

not happy

To return to Hemingway, there is an oft cited, erroneously apparently, anecdote that when challenged to tell a story in six words he replied:

For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

Just a fact, told simply, but its what is implied, everything our mind can make of all that has – and all that hasn’t  – been said, that gives it its power. Show is about what you choose to give the reader. And sadly even here, it gets muddled. And muddled by the notion of expansion, adding more and more details, more and more words. One blog article advises specific details as the key to understanding Show. By the end of his first reworking of the paragraph below, he has used an extra 109 words – nearly triple what he started with and we haven’t got even half way through the story.

They went to New York to see Cats. They both enjoyed it very much. When they tried to go home, their flight was delayed because of the snow so they stayed another night and decided to see the musical again.

But much more importantly has he achieved what he set out to do?

Writing that shows is so much more interesting than writing that tells that it’s worth doing the work ~ J. Bunting

Lets see..

Tanya and James flew to New York city in a 747.

  • Do we care about what type of plane they flew in?

They got their bags, took a taxi to their hotel, and checked into their rooms. “I can’t wait to see the show,” Tanya said. “You’re going to love it.”

James shook his head. “I don’t get it. It’s about Cats who sing and dance? Sounds sorta dumb.”

Tanya smiled, “Just trust me.”

  •  Is this an interesting interplay? Are we now fascinated by how he will react to Cats? Or has he just over-explained, shown us the ‘iceberg’?

Their hotel was just a few blocks from the Foxwoods Theater so they walked. He had never seen buildings so tall or so many people walking on the street.

  • Am I the only one rolling my eyes? Is he five? Am I?

When they got to the theater, Tanya noticed his eyes were a little wider, his mouth a little slacker.

  • I believe this is now an advert for how to spot the signs of stroke.

The foyer was covered in gold and white marble, with hundreds of people milling around in gowns and beautiful suits.

  • I appreciate fine tailoring as much as the next girl but really? Beautiful suits?

Okay, got a little sidetracked there, I might use beautiful suits, I’m coming round to it. It might suggest a latent desire to dress men for a living.

He has extended our knowledge, the length of the passage and our boredom threshold (if you got to the end), but hasn’t transformed this into something more alive, more vivid or interesting. And apart from shifting into ‘real time’ pace wise hasn’t demonstrated show at work. This shift from overview to blow by blow enactment is where the word count will almost inevitably go up. It can definitely be considered a part of show and its one I personally am fond of, however it is also such a common feature of most modern novels that it isn’t really where most writers are tripping up.

What if we remain in overview? The form most define as tell. If we can master and understand show in this form, perhaps we can master it fully. Here’s my rewrite.

So Tanya drags James to New York to see Cats. He’s threatening to trade in the tickets for the Knicks at Madison Square Gardens. Then a freak storm grounds their plane home and what do they end up doing? Seeing Cats again..

I really am loath to use interesting since this is possibly the dullest tale I’ve ever read, but its at least a step in the direction.  And only 2 words more than the original. I could probably cut it if I wanted, but the point is made. It’s not add more, if all you are adding is more of the same.

falling asleep

Perhaps the issue is simply that here the writer was attempting to answer ‘some of those questions’, when what he should have been doing was trying to raise more questions in the readers mind. I say more.. the only question I have is why would I be interested in this. And you would be surprised how much fiction is constructed in exactly the same way with exactly the same effect.

In my version Tanya is forcing James to do something he doesn’t want to do. Conflict isn’t show, its story, something the writer seemed to realise when he started to embellish his version. What is show is how you realise it, not simply in a block of explanation, but allowing it to seep naturally through your narrative. Simply adding ‘drag‘ was all that was required here.

‘He’s threatening to trade in the tickets for the Knicks at Madison Square Gardens’.  This sentence is where show really kicks in, and as the blogger first suggested with the inclusion of specific details. His intentions give us a sense of their relationship, his character and put us in New York – the gardens, the knicks,.. we all know those from movies if not real life – and it creates a juxtaposition with the first sentence, Tanya’s plans. We’re now primed to see how it resolves. Primed may be overstating it – it’s still the world’s dullest story.

Then a freak storm grounds their plane and what do they end up doing?’ This is colloquial and chatty, inviting the reader in. The first was stilted and blocked. It was quite clearly a carefully constructed series of events. This is a guy talking to you about his mates. Voice is never absent, not even if you try and mimic Hemingway’s extreme remove, but it can be literally everything else, sweet, angry, polite, robotic, dull. It’s a powerful tool to master and its why anytime you hear anyone say that prose is somehow subject to different rules to dialogue you should remember the adage

Its all somebody talking

‘Seeing Cats again..’ And the point of the story is trusted to the reader to interpret. He freaking loved it. Tanya always gets her way. This is why Cats is in its millionth year on Broadway, get your discount tickets here…

He wasn’t wrong in his base statement. Specificity is at the heart of show, he simply didn’t show us how to apply it or how it works. Burying the reader under detail, as wiki held, is unnecessary and will likely only decrease interest. Rather it’s a removal of the generic – ie went to, replaced by drag.. delayed by snow to freak storm.. and insertion of the particular. And in fiction that means personal, relevant, of the character/story/place. Unless your character was an autistic plane spotter the number of the plane wasn’t going to add anything; the voice, the language you choose, the tone, will.

And as Hemingway held, what you don’t say can be as vital to the effect as what you do. Maybe more. Consider the original and what I didn’t tell you in my version.

They both enjoyed it very much….. and decided to see the musical again.

Tell isn’t a form of sentence, or a number of words, it isn’t action, or dialogue, or description, its when the author leaves nothing unsaid – BUT – and this is the important bit – its when the author leaves nothing unsaid in what he has said. Tell shuts the reader out and that’s surely the one thing you definitely don’t want at any point in your story. Consider this added detail:

They got their bags, took a taxi to their hotel, and checked into their rooms.

What if instead he had given us:

Tanya paid the taxi while James fumbled about with their bags, ignoring the eager porter.

We’re still at the same place, doing the same things, still working with the same number of words, but now we have some idea of the people involved. I haven’t said James is cheap. I haven’t said Tanya is the breadwinner, I haven’t said how either feel about it, yet isn’t all of that and more in your head the minute you read the above words? In fact if you really are struggling with show take the above sentence and keeping the same basic details – taxi to hotel, check in – and roughly the same amount of words, rework it to create as many different tones, characters, inferences as you can.

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