Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Show Me Don't Tell Me How To Show Not Tell

Happy birthday to Debbie Fuller Thomas! She's 39 again and we wish her every happiness today!

I've seen explanations like this: 

"The difference between showing and telling in writing is simple! 
Telling: Becky was sick. 
Showing: Becky sniffled into a tissue, then vomited.


Hmmm. Not so much.

Perhaps we need to take the discussion of Show vs Tell and throw it in the same place as Becky's crumpled tissue. Writers need to stop talking as if Showing is some easy literary device. Something you can choose to employ or un-employ at whim.

It is, instead, the preferred method of storytelling. Method - not device. It is part of the theory of the modern novel. It is the discussion of intent, not meaning. It is the unveiling of the human condition, not the opening of a toolbox.

Didn't know there was a theory of the literature? There are several. But that is for another blog.

If Showing were simply about writing long and detailed explanations of the chain of action-reflection-reaction-action, no one would ever get a book written - moreover, no one would care to read the thing anyway. Who wants to read an encyclopedia of people in motion? 

This explanation doesn't give insight into why some of our most beloved novels have wide swaths - pages and pages - of narrative summary. These often pop up in fascinating tangents where a character has experiences something, and then ponders the nature of the experience at length. Is that "showing"? The answer is: Yes, in part.

Something much more interesting is going on when we speak of Showing. An author who shows the story is an author with a light touch - one who respects her character's choices, who balks at easy answers, and stares messy incompleteness in the face. A writer who shows is a writer able to capture the subtleties and nuance of human hearts in motion. 

Showing isn't really about an explanation of the action occurring in a novel - it is an exploration of the people themselves. It is taking the characters, laying them flat and rolling, like a scroll, their essence. Recognizing the inadequacy of our efforts, we, the writers, pull out what it is to experience the story we are telling. We examine a facet here, an angle there, all the while weeping for the parts we cannot tell within the limitations of the medium.

Showing is to cause the reader to be awash in the experience of your characters. It begins with word one, and ends as the last page is turned. It is the author's ability to step aside, and let the characters experience the story. It has nothing - I repeat - nothing to do with how many words you use to help the reader picture the turning of a door knob.

Sometimes you just need to get the door open and who cares how it got that way - if I explained the tedious gripping of a handle, the turning of a wrist, the click of tumblers, it would slow the story down - bog it down, actually. Instead the door is opened. Ah! A greenish Becky enters, crumpled tissue in hand. Oh good!

So what do we call it when the author pushes aside the doldrums of "Becky was sick" in favor of "Becky sniffled into a tissue and vomited"? I would call it being precise.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Thank you, Bonnie. You really have no idea how much I needed to read this today. Yes. On this day.

You rock.

Lori Benton said...

I've sat here reading this...

"Showing is to cause the reader to be awash in the experience of your characters. It begins with word one, and ends as the last page is turned. It is the author's ability to step aside, and let the characters experience the story."

...over and over, so it sinks in.

Megan Sayer said...

Bonnie this is good.
While I was editing the book I just completed I found a few times I'd left myself notes in red, saying "Is this showing, or telling?", to which my fabulous crit partner (bless her bless her bless her cotton socks) said "you're doing both".
Together. Somehow. But, apparently, it worked, and I didn't know any other way of writing it, so it stayed.
But it kind of bothered me. I figured that one day some kindly and experienced editor would point out exactly why I was doing it wrong, but until then it'd have to stay.

But people like it! Apparently it works, even with it's lack of eight-sequences-and-building-up-scenes-and-showing-not-telling. It works anyway!!! So this post is such a timely explanation of WHY it works regardless, and permission, if you like, to trust my instinct and do it again next time too. Thanks.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: Cool! Glad to hit the spot today. :)

Lori: Here's to sinking. Uh... in a good way. Thanks for reading, Lori.

Megan: Yes, both is so very possible. Good thing you have such an astute crit partner. Perhaps you and I will chat about your recent project in future.

Steve G said...

So... showing is not just how you do plot; but it is plot itself, in a way.

I have to chew on this one.

Megan Sayer said...

Perhaps we will. I'd like that.

Marian said...

One of the novels I am reading right now shows every gritty detail through the eyes of which ever character has the podium even if another character has already described that very scene. Now I know why I am finding it tedious.

Bonnie Grove said...

Marian: I know what you mean. Multiple POV is fine, but it often leads to writing the same scene from different perspectives. This is tedious unless that is the whole point of the story. Even then, it would be tricky.

Denise Covey said...

Sure, I agree, show don't tell, but not all the time. I'm currently doing a little project: I'm pulling apart books by best-selling authors to see what they do. They quite often don't do all the little modern tricks we're told we must do - delete those pesky adjectives and adverbs, show don't tell, leave backstory til later, don't describe your characters, let the reader imagine them, and so on...

My latest tome to pull apart is one by Danielle Steele, who's sold over 600 million books. This book I read I had to abandon halfway through. It is complete narrative, telling, me waiting for the story to begin, and she breaks all the above rules. Makes you wonder...


Bonnie Grove said...

Denise: A very interesting experiment you're doing. And thank you for sharing your observations. It does make me wonder--a lot.

Some folks (like those proponents of literary theory I mentioned), might simply dismiss Danielle and her "ilk" (Sol Stein has rather unkind names for bestsellers like her), but it's impossible to argue with 600 million copies sold. *faint*

The good news is that there are 600 million folks out there reading! Let's keep writing for them.

Juliette Wade said...

I was intrigued by your view of "showing" - indeed, I agree that it's easier to demonstrate complexity than to explain it. I did a survey of authors about "Show, Don't Tell" and came up with no fewer than four definitions for it, each of which had some usefulness, but the phrase itself is more opaque than helpful in my opinion. The degree of detail and demonstration that the author engages in at any point will depend on how much focus needs to be put on whatever is being demonstrated. As a friend of mine put it, "Some things just aren't worth a whole sentence."

I write in multiple point of view quite often, but though I'll sometimes change points of view in the middle of an interaction to demonstrate misunderstanding (cultural, personal, or both), I don't like to cover the same ground twice for the reasons you mentioned. Misunderstandings can provide their own form of drive, though, which is one reason I like to do it. Thanks for the great article!

Bonnie Grove said...

"Some things just aren't worth a whole sentence."

This is terrific. And true.

You make a good point, Juliette, about the author needing to choose, decide, weigh, what needs demonstration and what needs to simply be stated. It's an intuitive process rather than applying a rule of writing.

I like how Patti Hill puts it, getting that octopus in the mayonnaise jar. Show vs. Tell is a tentacle of that octopus.

Unknown said...

Bonnie, thank you so much for a real answer. Everyone says "Show don't tell" For a novice writer it can be difficult to grasp that notion. I had a basic concept of what that meant but it just did not click for me until I read your article. You taught me to fish, instead of just giving me the fish. For that I am truly grateful. I look forward to reading more of your blogs.