Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Show Me, Tell Me

Let me get this off my chest. I'm well-aware of the rule that states a writer should show, not tell.

Show the story! Don't tell the story! Yes yes yes, I've heard it over and over. Preach on, little parrot, preach on.

But let me tell you something about telling.

See, there's something you can only do with telling, and it is this: Bond the reader to the character.

For instance, let's take the security guard floating in my beer as I ponderize this post. It's dark beer, Delirium Nocturnum, whatever the hell that is, and it has 8.5% alcohol. That's nearly twice a Bud Water's content, or at least today it is, and there's a security guard in it.

Guard the Showing
She sits behind a half-round table stacked with split-screen monitors showing each of the cells in the city jailhouse. One bank of monitors reads Holding Tank. Another bank reads Shakedown. Another reads Visitation.

And so on. (I borrow this from Vonnegut, who I am reading at present, all hail V)

A cup of coffee with a lipstick ring sits half-empty next to her hand as she types. She types a name into the computer: Harold Banks.

She types Harold's weight and height and the date he arrived in the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

I'll stop there. I was showing, not telling. I told you nothing about her, not even her name. I guess I could have shown you her nametag, but I didn't want to ~tell~ you her name. That's telling, not showing.

And this is exactly -- EXACTLY -- what you get with movies and videos and those damned old moving picture thingies. You get SHOWING, not telling.

Now, sometimes you do get telling, even in the movies. We hear it as a narrator's voice, the author, a character, someone filling you in on the details, someone ~telling~ you the details.

Let me re-hash that security guard scene with a little snip of telling, not showing.

Guard the Telling
Henrietta Beecher Snowe scooped up the stack of papers from this afternoon's processing frenzy and laid out the first one face-up next to her keyboard. Jackie, the day clerk, had called in sick and since the officers didn't know how to use the new software system, and since Henrietta had all damned day to kill watching nothing but three-dozen holding cells and Google her name, the task fell on her to perform the day's data entry.

And today had been unusually busy.

It started when Jack Keller, the local busy-body and town drunk, was run over by a dump truck hauling a load of pea gravel. Henrietta had gone to school with the driver, Harold Banks, and had once offered him a sticky-finger behind the band hall after one of the football games. Henrietta played flute. Henry had been a percussionist. Now he drove trucks and ran over drunks who happened to be stumbling along the side of the shoulderless road just outside of Jefferson's Grocery and Deli.

Jack Keller, of course, had been killed. The truck's back tires had squeezed his head like a brown grape and left his brains skid-marked along the side of the road in a gray-matter snail trail.

Henry had tested positive for alcohol, not surprising given he was driving on the shoulder in the first place, and Larry Timbers, one of the day officers who worked nights over in Beaumont, found a bag of cocaine under the driver's seat. Henry rolled the truck, spilling the gravel up and down Poskie Street proper, and that's when things got interesting.

And so on.

Do you see the difference? I told you one story.

I showed you the other.

Yes, I agree showing is the best way to show a story, but telling is the best way to tell a story.

You need both. The showing moves the present-tense action along. The telling fills in the details and the background.

The ~telling~ is the critical point in writing. It's when you bond the reader to your characters.

The ~telling~ is what you do not get with a movie.

The ~telling~ is what people miss when they see a movie adaptation of a book, when they look at you and squint and say, The book was better.

Why? you ask.

I don't know, they say. It just was. I got inside their heads better.

This comes up because I'm editing, and my readers keep asking me to ~tell~ them about the characters. I was trying to show show show. I'm thinking now that I showed too much and told too little.

Don't be afraid to tell. It's how you bond to the characters! It's how you make the reader care about what happens to them!

How about you? Do you have that strange detestation of telling that afflicts so many writers?

- Eric


Joshua McCune said...

Figuring out the ratio of usage, when to tell, when to show (when to cut), that's the tricky bitch to wrangle.

Jemi Fraser said...

Like most things in life, it's all about balance. You can't show/tell a good story without doing some of both!

Raquel Byrnes said...

I'm the opposite, actually. I get my crit partner's notes back and she's all over me for 'telling' and not showing so I have to go back and rework.

Interesting post, Eric. Got me thinking.
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Loralie Hall said...

The first time I read something by William Gibson I was absolutely floored by how vivid his showing was. And about two minutes later it got old. There has to be a balance.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I know I did a lot of telling in the beginning. I think all writers do.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I don't really get this post.
The part under "Telling" made my eyes glaze over. This fact, that fact, blah blah.
Well told, mind you, but still boring ol' facts.

If you want to connect me to the character, show me what they care about.

Henrietta snatched the stack of papers from this afternoon's damn processing frenzy and threw the first one face-up next to her soul-sucking keyboard.

Henrietta dragged the stack of papers from the horrid processing frenzy in trembling fingers, and silently placed the first one face-up next to the keyboard and smoothed it down. She silenced a curse as she mistyped the first name, darting glances toward the empty desk of her supervisor.

You can have the exact same actions, but to show, think about the experience of doing these actions. What's it like to deal with all these crazy idiots?

Jack Keller, that two-timing bastard, had been killed.

Jack Keller, hope of Townville High, had been slaughtered.

Jack Keller. The name caught in Henrietta's throat, swirled around, and jumped from her lips in a frothing curse. Now he lay on a cold slab.

My point is to make all the backstory about Henrietta, not about the reader. Show me the emotion connected with each fact. Show me why I should care to know these facts. Have people argue over different versions of the facts.

Just something to think about.