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Show, Don’t Tell: The Difference between Life and Text

Posted by CW64 on August 24, 2012

Another major issue I encounter while editing manuscripts is the excess of descriptive and explanatory narratives that produce flatness in character and the world in which that character lives (and quite often involves redundancies in many forms). This annoys me more than impresses me, but I am always understanding and patient with beginning writers.

For one thing, ongoing explanations of text offend intelligent readers; such continuous tirades deprive readers the opportunity to use their own minds during the reading process. A story means nothing without the reader’s cognitive input, which includes interpretation and query-making among other things. As I state in an earlier post, writers are never to underestimate the intelligence of the readers; doing so drives away an audience that sums up the experience as nothing more than an aggravating slap-in-the-face.

The point: quality writers get on with the story and let the readers figure things out for themselves. The rule is to stick with the action, dialogue and minimal description, sharing casually the essential information necessary to facilitate the flow and flesh out character development to the point of promoting a sense of realism. This practice refers to the ever-mentioned notion of “showing,” and it isn’t always easy to do. With experience and reasoning, though, writers develop the skill quite naturally.

Let’s start with the two sentences below:

Frank moves slowly
Frank drags along like a slug in the mud

Which of these two describes the concept of moving slowly? If you don’t know the answer, chances are you haven’t done enough reading and writing.

The concept of “showing” is both a fuzzy and distinct one, and an understanding of said concept will help readers and writers discern why. This might sound like a contradiction, but it is not; “showing” in literature—any kind of literature, whether it be fiction or non-fiction—is extremely complex.

Firstly, the assertion of “fuzzy” refers to the idea that each person has her or his own idea what “showing” means and what it entails to be executed appropriately. A nice example lies in the above illustration. One person might say that the first line is simple and clear and therefore more appropriate than the second. Another would likely say that the second is longer, but it “fleshes out” out the concept in question and conveys more information about the character and what he is doing than what is merely stated. Finally, a third might concur that both, in fact, are showing the reader what is meant by “moving slowly” but in two different acceptable ways. In the end, however, the particular perspective to which one wants to adhere is dependent on that person’s ideals and style preferences.

Conversely, the idea that “showing” as distinct follows through the obvious: to convey imagery so that it “jumps” from the page and appeals to the reader’s senses. In this light, the imagery comes to life in vivid color, sound and motion so that it appears and feels real to the reader. Not everything written can do that. Do the two illustrations above satisfy the requirement necessary to consider them “showing”?

Let’s take a closer look…

Frank moves slowly

According to the first person mentioned above, this one is sweet and simple and therefore most adequate to convey the idea, which shouldn’t take extensive passages and countless adjectives and modifiers to express. This, indeed, makes perfect sense. The sentences contains three common words—a noun, a verb and an adverb. The noun tells who is performing the action, the verb clarifies what that action is and the adverb—the keyword necessary to establish the overall idea—describes how the action is carried out. What more is required? Nothing is, apparently; the entire idea is complete.

Still, the second person can jump in and say that this sentence, though simple and direct, is cliche and therefore not fresh or unique at all; the character and the action are both flat and contain no life beyond the three words used to write the sentence. From an artistic perspective, this point is extremely valid. The better writer stands out by not expressing ideas the same as any other; she/he captivates the reader’s attention and has a greater potential for achieving a larger and wider audience than the writer who employs the use of the first line. Creativity demands individuality and non-conformity, and that quite often means breaking away from conventions, no matter how common.

Frank drags along like a slug in the mud

This line, according to the second voice, consists of four extra words than the first line, so it isn’t really excessive in length. The action word “drags” and the simile “like a slug in the mud” together paint a vivid picture that appeals to the reader’s senses and emotions by allowing said reader to feel Frank’s slow movements. In addition, this line implies something regarding Frank’s personality, that he is, perhaps, a sloth by nature. Simply put: the sentence shows the reader who Frank is, at least in part, and therefore does more than just tell. The reader is much more likely to be drawn into characters that seem real than those whom the writer merely dictates in sprawling descriptions and explanation.

Another point to be made here is that although the first sentence is terse and direct, the fact that it expresses nothing more than the three words suggests that the writer will require longer passages to express the same amount of information that the second one does, so it isn’t really shorter in the end. By using a greater number of words in a single sentence, as in the second line, the writer conveys more about the character and her or his situation by using fewer words overall.

An example: a sunshiny day encapsulates the same information, impressions and characteristics as a day full of bright sunshine and warmth filled with smiles and laughter; everything mentioned in the longer version is implicit in the shorter one.

Then, of course, there is the third speaker, who takes a neutral stance and insists that both perspectives are equal yet different. In this view, individuality is still promoted, as both lines offer a unique form of expression compared to the other. As long as all of the points and/or premise are clear and the information discernible, the words shouldn’t matter.

This attitude makes sense as well and is worthy of consideration. After all, intelligibility and clarity are two major cornerstones of good, quality writing. Both lines are intelligible and clear in their delivery, so one form should not necessarily be superior to the other.

In the end, however, the writer needs to know her or his characters and their lives well in order to “show” them effectively. This fact is quite often associated with the context…

Showing in Context

Context makes a substantial difference when it comes to how, where and if a writer “shows” something. By this, a writer uses the means, if necessary, the appropriate elements to effectively bring something to life.

The case of a story on a World War II aviator requires imagery relevant to that particular scenario, such as the use of metaphors like “dust” and “shattered metal” and fireball” as opposed to, say, “rag doll” or “lollipop,” for instance. The words employed should hold some type of relevance to the subject matter at hand if the description is to be applicable and effective.

Take the following passage for instance:

Young James Claybourne heard the hellish squealing bursting through the crackling and the grinding of twisting metal. His heart slammed against his ribcage as he scanned the smoking windows. Vile fumes of cinders burned his nostrils.

“Where is it coming from?” he muttered, spitting ash to the cracked sidewalk. The grime on his skin felt sticky under his coat, but he pushed that out of his mind. “Wh-where?…”

Then she appeared suddenly, jutting her reddened face from the top floor. The building shook violently. The girl’s eyes flamed white in terror.

“Help me!”

James sprang forth amidst the crumbling walls and smothering heat from the eruptions around him. He held his helmet tightly with a glove while gripping an axe with the other. Water swelled in his eyes and his head spun and swayed like a loose light fixture, but he forced himself onward stair after stair after stair after stair. . .

Here, no explanations are given and descriptions are minimized and limited to relevant references. No mention of the particular situation is stated because it isn’t necessary for the reader to realize that the scene is about a burning building and that James is a fireman. The narrative stays on the action and keeps pace all the way through. The words and phrases used belong in this scenario and paint a vivid picture that appeals to all of the senses: “hellish squealing,” “bursting,” “crackling” and “grinding of twisting metal” (audio); “vile fumes burning his nostrils” (olfactory); “swelling water” and “spinning and swaying” (visual); “spitting ash” (taste) and “grime” and “sticky” (textural). The reader can sense what he is experiencing, and so he seems real as a result. Other words, like “redden face” and “flaming eyes of terror” not only describe how the girl feels, but also enhance the overall tone of the scene and contribute to the description of the fire and the sense of urgency prevailing. The “swaying like a loose light fixture” simile isn’t really necessary here (“spinning and swaying” would be enough), but its inclusion demonstrates the use of an appropriate reference that serves two purposes: (1) to illustrate James’ mental state, and (2) to offer a suggestive detail that sharpens the overall descriptive image of the shaking building that plays in the reader’s mind while reading.

Also: James’ actions say something about him: pushing discomfort out of his mind and springing onward into the firetrap to save the girl and forcing himself onward despite his dizziness all attest to the man’s persistence and dedication to helping others in need. This message comes through the actions, NOT any drawn out and tiresome explanation.

In Conclusion. . .

Whatever means of “showing” a writer employs, the objective is to bring the characters and their situation to life so they can interact with the reader. As said, a story’s value is nothing without the reader’s reception and interpretation of said story’s contents. Publishers know this all too well, which is why their evaluations revolve around how riveting a story is. If readers are drawn into a story/book/novel, it will surely sell. The “show” aspect, or the degree of vividness and/or realism a story projects, often makes a difference between high-quality and substandard quality writing, and it ultimately determines failure or success.

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2 Responses to “Show, Don’t Tell: The Difference between Life and Text”

  1. While showing vs. telling is one of the most difficult things for both beginning and seasoned writers, it is the meat that keeps the story flowing. Certainly we can’t show everything–there will always be some telling–but the idea is to convey the emotions in a manner that allows the reader to visualize what is happening in the story.

  2. CW64 said

    Exactly. Minimalism is the key. One word or phrase can trigger a cascade of visuals, sound, tastes, smells, feelings, etc., but it must be the RIGHT reference. Using more than is necessary is redundant and overkill. As said, it isn’t easy, but it definitely makes a difference.

    As for showing everything, writers should know what needs enhancement and what needs to remain in the background. That’s called perspective, or maintaining perspective, and is part of shaping a piece of fiction writing.

    Telling, in my experience and IMO, should be minimal as well; only those few points that cannot be shown should be explained. Again, too much is overkill, but yes, emotional and sensory projection serve as the objective either way.

    The important thing is to determine what needs to be brought out and what doesn’t and what needs to be explained. Every story is different, depending on its premise and purpose. Finding out where the story goes is the adventure of writing.

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