Show & Tell

Show, don’t tell” it’s something you’ll find a certain class of critic and some writers repeating over and over.  It sounds good too; I mean, if I only tell, the story will be rather short.  To tell Now & Forever: Lauren and Sally meet, they fall in love, there’s some crap because they’re lesbians in modern America and because they attend a religious private school, they overcome it, they graduate and live happily ever after.

Not too exciting is it?  Needless to say, I’ve got some showing to do.

Like most writing advice, ‘show, don’t tell’ is a fantastic guideline.  It, like everything else, cannot be a hard and fast rule.  Even the Rules of English Grammar, high and mighty they may be, are malleable in the crucible of creativity; just be sure you violate them on purpose, not by mistake.

Writing is a game of show and tell.  Humans are visual and auditory creatures.  We are not predesigned to communicate by little glyphs on paper or monitor, we just have the capacity to discuss a codified system of describing our natural communications methods in a symbolic fashion – we call this ‘writing’.

You’ll see mention of ‘invisible words’.  There are no invisible words.  There are words more or less obvious in the course of a sentence, but ‘a sentence’ versus ‘the sentence’ holds different meaning.  ‘Said’ is not invisible.  If I ‘say’, “I am going to the store,” then you will picture in your mind a different volume, tone, and such than if I ‘yell’, “I’m going to the store,” or ‘exclaim’, or ‘shout’, or ‘scream’.  Each word conveys a different context.  I show the dialogue “I am going to the store” but I tell the description of how I say it.  When writing fiction, you use the same language you would use to tell a story to your friends face to face – you will use it slightly differently, yes, but there’s a reason that both practices are called ‘storytelling’.

Some say it insults the reader’s intelligence to tell how something is said, others just simply don’t like adverbs so will use an adjectival phrase that has precisely the same meaning as the adverb.  The adverb is brevity, it’s pacing.  ‘She asked coyly’ is the same as ‘in a coy tone, she asked’.  One just pads the word count out a bit.  True, in some cases, the latter might hold a better sound or rhythm, so you may well choose it over the former, but the opposite could also be said.

The key to writing, and it doesn’t matter what you’re writing, from an IM to an epic series of novels, you are engaging in symbolic human speech.  You must consider how your punctuation, use of formatting, use of word choice, and – when need be – use of adverbs and adjectives will come across to the reader.  If you have no specific in mind, then you can keep some things neutral:  ‘I’m off to the store,’ she said.  But if it’s important that all readers hear that line in their minds the same way because it is critical to the moment you might try: ‘I’m off to the store,’ she sobbed.

You’re not insulting the readers’ intelligence by either confirming what they suspect, or by guiding them subtly down the infinite branches of probable scenarios that something could contain.  “Stop it,” she growled as the man kicked her harder.  Is different than “Stop it,” she whimpered as the man kicked her harder.  In this case, clearly the context up to this was a fight; this poor woman is being beaten.  In the former example, she is getting angry, she is hurting but she’s pissed and likely about to retaliate; in the latter she is in suffering in pain, pleading for succour from her assailant’s aggression.

The language we use in our storytelling is vital.  We must paint our scenes, scenarios, and situations for an audience who is not privy to the inner workings of our own imaginations.  Even when writing non-fiction, there should be an eye to what the reader will ‘hear’ in their mind as they read as you still must be certain that your text conveys with it the meaning equal to the lesson you’re providing.

It’s been said, and it might be true, that prose has suffered in the age of the word processor.  In the days of longhand and typewriter you would carefully narrate your tale, leading to accolades of the brilliant prose and resulting in your story reading as though some invisible storyteller were, indeed, speaking your words.  In the age since the word processor – both the devices (for those old enough to remember them) and the software – we treat our text as pieces of a mosaic, something we can shuffle around and turn and tug until we have the picture we desire.  I can’t say, myself, my approach is the same regardless how I compose the text, but I can say that there seems to be a distinct difference between the average piece of fiction of old compared to one of today in regards to how comfortably it can be read aloud … though I will say that some of the books of greatest impact seem to read more like older tales, than newer, and have a more tangible voice in the narrative.

We each write like that which we most enjoy reading, but the thing to keep in mind is that there are no rules.  If you don’t want to show something, because it isn’t important beyond the acknowledgment: this happened, then just tell.  Remember, if your character’s reaction, tone, expression, etc. is important, then be certain to say what it is.  Show and tell, we cannot communicate in the written English without doing both.  Not all people see the same body language, the same situations, from the same point of view, be sure to tell your audience just what is going on.  The argument that “no one on TV says, ‘I’m really upset now’” is a very daft argument about text; on TV we can see and hear that they are angry, and you can bet that the script has something like:  Helen:  Angry with Jillian.  Can we get the hell out of here now?!

3 thoughts on “Show & Tell

  1. Pingback: “The door irised open” | Jaye Em Edgecliff

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