Thursday, January 28, 2010

Show v. Tell

AN Interruption of My STRUCTURE Posts for a Public Service Announcement Concerning “Show Don’t Tell.”

DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS ADVICE: “Show don’t tell.” When someone gives it to you (and they aren’t specific), give them the fisheye. I don’t really know what the fisheye is but I know it’s not good. Give it to them. This ridiculous advice is passed along like it’s one of the Ten Commandments. I’m hear to tell you, brothers and sisters, it is not. No novel only shows. Read any novel you like, and you will find plenty of show AND tell. So it is a useless piece of advice UNLESS you’re speaking about a specific part of a novel that should be showing more and telling less.

In scenes you do mostly want to show. You want to reveal your characters longings and fears and you want to show the reader, make the reader live them with your character. Showing involves the reader emotionally.

BUT there is information you will need to tell. You might summarize all kinds of things. Summary of what the character does for a living or where he always went on vacation or some thought he has about the nature of the universe or his love of bacon, all of these might be important but not important enough they need scenes. Or you might summarize something that happens that isn’t that important to the story but that adds needed information or explains some movement of the story. Anything that doesn’t require a scene might be summarized, might be told. Doing so emphasizes the importance of what is shown and keeps the novel moving.

So the really difficult part show and tell is deciding what’s important enough, essential enough to developing your character and story, to be shown. Show and tell is ultimately about this critical choice.


Shalanna said...

Exactly! My creative writing prof at SMU some years ago (shut up, I can't be THAT old if I still like to watch cartoons--well, SOME cartoons) said this advice confused writers, and that he'd recast it as "dramatize, don't narrate," and would further say, "dramatize what needs to be dramatized, and narrate what happens offstage because it's inherently boring or because readers already know how it happens--such as travel time, going to class, and so forth until the next interesting event." But then all the workshop attendees have had "show EVERYTHING and NEVER EXPLAIN" drummed into their heads, and they yell anytime you summarize--even if you just say "She finished gardening and headed to the supermarket," or whatever. Sigh!

Brian Yansky said...

I'm with you. Exactly. Good example. Thanks for the comment, Shalanna.

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Brian, I struggled with this in writing my memoir, because I feel memoir must have both horizontal and vertical. There must be a blend, or a lot of the scenes won't really make sense. By the way, I found you through Twitter through Cynthia L-S. I'll be attempting my first YA novel soon (in the ruminating process) so am glad to connect.

Elisabeth Black said...

This is me agreeing with you.

So nice to see another tell-rebel.