Reblog: Balance showing and telling

Show, don’t tell

I HATE this advice. I know myself well enough to know that probably means I need to pay attention when people say it about my writing. If you ask me about it, I’ll probably say something like “I’m skeptical; it’s a newfangled notion and I’ve read plenty of books that have stood the test of time while telling mercilessly.”

Honestly, though? I hate this advice because I don’t understand it well enough to heed it.

This blog post is my attempt to come to grips with this confusing notion.

It’s in the prose

Show, don’t tell, isn’t an aspect of the storytelling side of writing. You can have a terrific plot, compelling characters, and a meaningful theme, and still struggle with telling. Show, don’t tell happens in the prose you use to tell the story.

Do you see what I did there? Storytelling. Prose that tells the story. This is probably a big reason I find this concept so vague: it’s a catchy phrase that doesn’t convey enough meaning to be helpful.

Dramatization versus exposition

The fabulously informative K.M. Weiland explains the phrase as code for mastering great narrative and allowing readers to fully inhabit the story. In the old novels I sink into when I have a bad day, I’m observing a character who’s watching something happen; the “show versus tell” goal is for me to watch something happen myself.

Weiland recommends examining every paragraph of your novel for the proper balance of showing, using a list of checkpoints.

  1. “Telling” verbs

These are verbs that put a layer of distance between the reader and the story. Weiland’s list includes ask, begin, feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, think, touch, and wonder. These words distance the reader because instead of engaging the reader’s own senses, you’re telling them what the narrator is sensing. It’s the difference between “Sally heard a lark singing” and something that describes the plaintive, desperate cry of a lark looking for a mate.

My impression of lark song from a hundred literary references was completely off base. There are no larks where I live, so I looked it up on YouTube to help me write that sentence. From reading all those old “telling” narratives, I imagined a beautiful melody, like the mockingbird outside my house sings. Now I know it’s more of a call, not very musical at all. If the way a lark sounds was important to a plot, I’d never have gotten the point.

2. Dramatize, don’t summarize

You can think of showing as dramatizing, and telling as summarizing. It’s the knife plunging into the victim’s heart versus the assassin killing the victim. Joe Bunting calls this being specific, and he says it’s the secret to showing, not telling. He recommends interrogating your story to reveal the hidden depths, and compares a summary to a closed accordion. The music happens when you pull it open and show the folds.

3. Balance

Don’t try to eliminate all the telling in your novel. You can use it to summarize tedious or extraneous events, remind readers of what they already know, and transition between scenes, times, and settings. Most of your writing should be showing, but there’s a place for telling. As a reader, I’m fine with a summary that says the second week in the new job was just like the first. Writer’s Digest says be brief, and make sure whatever you’re summarizing is really necessary for advancing the plot by developing backstory, establishing mood, or describing the setting. The flip side of adding specificity is that you’re adding length. Don’t bore the reader.

4. Show the one right detail

Find the one thing that will bring the scene to life, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Brandon Sanderson talks about this in his BYU lesson on world building: he says if you go deep on one little thing about your fantasy or science fiction world, it creates the illusion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Weiland says that trying to dramatize everything, so the reader sees exactly what you see in your imagination, doesn’t usually work, and adds unnecessary clutter. Along the same lines, Tom Leveen reminds us that everyone knows what bacon smells like, so you don’t need to waste a paragraph describing it. He says make that one right detail concrete: it’s not the length of the description but the specificity. You can choose to leave other things ambiguous.

The camera trick

The Writer’s Digest recommends Jeff Gerke’s idea from his book The First 50 Pages, to help you identify whether your prose is telling, not showing. Ask yourself, can the camera see it? “It was a peaceful land and the people lived in harmony” is telling because the camera can’t see peace and harmony.

You’ll have to imagine a camera that picks up things from the other senses. Also, interior monologue isn’t telling, even though the camera wouldn’t see it.

Showing better by stirring emotions

Another way to think about it is to say that showing is the ability to stir readers’ emotions, says Abigail Perry on the DIY MFA website. Using the courtroom verdict scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see how three techniques heighten the reader’s connection to the character’s emotions:

  1. Metaphor and simile

Using vivid images and precise words pulls the reader in better than vague adverbs and adjectives. In Mockingbird, Scout says “I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers.” She could have said “the jury returned, moving slowly” but that wouldn’t have conveyed the agonizing pace. The metaphor also helps to show how Scout is perceiving the moment, in a dreamlike, time-stretched, somber way.

Metaphors and similes make scenes easier to imagine. Watch out for clichés, though – I know the first simile that comes to my mind is usually something that was overused a hundred years ago.

2.  Verbs to trigger the senses

Scout notices that Jem’s hands are “white from gripping the rails.” From this image, we know Jem is upset, and we can feel the tension in his body. Atticus “pushes” his papers and “snaps” his briefcase. Using verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs is a stronger, more direct way to describe what and how the character sees, smells, hears, and feels. Tom Leveen says we can use more than 5 senses in our writing. The senses of temperature, pain, balance and acceleration, and where our limbs are in relation to ourselves can all help deepen the reader’s connection to our work.

3.  Interweaving dialogue

Dialogue is another way to show a character’s feelings and emotions. There’s not much dialogue in the Mockingbird  scene but what little there is pulls us in deeper. Not exactly dialogue, but description of dialogue – “Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny” – conveys that same slow-motion unreality as the “underwater swimmers” jury motion. At the end of the scene, as Scout is watching from the balcony as Atticus exits the courtroom, Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’…” The short statement conveys the respect the community has for Atticus, and supports the visuals.

How to show in four easy steps

The Daily Writing Tips blog summarizes the concept briefly:

  1. Use dialogue
  2. Use sensory language
  3. Be descriptive (but don’t go so far as to write a “police blotter” description)
  4. Be specific, not vague

The great lie of writing workshops?

Joshua Henkin has a different perspective on the “show don’t tell” advice. He says there is a kernel of truth in it – fiction is a dramatic art. However, a novel is not a movie. Movies are better at certain things, but they aren’t as good at others as novels are, like conveying what’s going on in the general sense that doesn’t fit into a specific scene, or more importantly, describing internal psychological states. A movie can suggest emotion by dialogue and gesture, or borrow from the novel with a voice-over; a novel can straight-out tell you what the person is feeling.

Henkin says “show don’t tell” can be a lazy way to say something isn’t working in a story, when the teacher and the student need to dig deeper to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. It’s easier to fiddle with the description so the reader can see the torn vinyl couch than it is to describe internal emotional states without using cheesy clichés. “Show don’t tell” can provide cover for writers who don’t want to do the hardest but most crucial work.

Mostly show but sometimes tell

Hannah Collins neatly straddles both sides of the question with this less catchy but more accurate phrase. She compares writing to music, where composers include silence to give the listener a rest from all the sounds. If you do nothing but show, your writing will be long and exhausting, and some things are better conveyed by simple telling.

Because telling comes naturally to writers, we need to learn to show, which is why the “show don’t tell” advice is so prevalent. Collins recommends practicing by writing a scene in simple “telling” style and then rewriting it to show, sprinkling in more details and context than the straightforward telling conveyed.

Ultimately, knowing when to show and when to tell comes from experience, practice, instinct, and feedback.

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You Might Have To Pry

Have you ever wanted to say something like this to someone near and dear to you?

If ever you become aware of me being different, please, ask me what’s wrong.

Usually I will outright tell you, long before it becomes noticeable that something is awry, but if I go quiet, it is because it is hard for me to talk about it. If you’ll ask me, and keep at me until you get to the heart of it, I think it would help.

Sometimes we don’t like to talk about our problems, especially if we think they’ll go away.

You might have to pry, but I think it will be worth it. If it is to the point that you notice it, and you ignore it, then we are both ignoring it, and it is not likely to get better.

And please be prepared for the possibility that the problem might be you.

A Beautiful Mind

I had the most amazing dream last night.  Well, it was amazing to ME.

I dreamed that I was in a place of business on Tyee Road in Point Roberts, Washington.  It was a small building in which I had never been before and which probably doesn’t exist outside the dream.  In retrospect, it might have been a small art gallery.

On the wall above a table were large posters like horizontal navigation maps.  They had symbols on them that seemed to make no sense.

I announced to the people around me, “Hey, I can see the patterns in those posters just like the guy in the movie A Beautiful Mind!”

Some people tried to see what I was seeing.  Others just kinda looked at me sideways like “Uh…okaaay…whatever.”

If I looked at the poster as a whole, I couldn’t see the pattern.  When I looked with my eyes narrowed and my head tilted back a bit, the shapes in the patterns showed themselves in 3D whereas the rest of the images remained 2D.

There might be some meaning in this, or it might just be random disconnected thoughts.

If there is a meaning, I’m going to venture a guess that it is to say if you haven’t been there, you really have no idea how or why the person who experienced what they lived has impacted them.

Furthermore, looking at what you see in total cannot be understood until you see each fine detail, and see them in their proper order.

(I originally published this in facebook Notes on February 11, 2011.)

The Struggle Is Where We Find The Beauty

Quote

“If there was a place to get to where everyone was happy and whole, we’d stop making art.

There would be no music.

There would be nothing left to write about.

It would be a flat, expressionless existence instead of the one precious life we have.

The struggle is where we find the beauty.”

~Kate Bartolotta

Gratitude is not always easy

me and charlie
Today I am grateful for:

1.  The colourful hat I have on my head.  It was left here by my third daughter, who had borrowed it from my first daughter.  My first daughter is in long-term rehab and I miss her.  Wearing her hat warms my head and my heart with thoughts of her.

2.  Tears that are flowing from my eyes while I write, to help wash out a smidgen of the pain I have been enduring of late.

3.  Having heard from a friend with whom I had once thought I had lost touch forever, but from whom I now occasionally hear, and he even subscribed to my blog.  (Hola, Señor Heelez).

4.  The sip of Zevia ginger rootbeer that was just brought to me by my eight-year-old son.  He said, “Here’s some fresh Zevia that I just opened.  It’s fresh.”

5.  The smell of lentils and barley cooking in the kitchen, to which I am about to add carrots, onions, garlic, celery, and chopped ham.

And an extra mention of gratitutde to the blogger at Inspirationenergy, who inadvertently prompted me to write this — Inspirationenergy’s Gratitude Page.

Picture 7 (3)-1

me and charlie2 me and charlie3

For more gratitutdes, check out:  my Gratitudes category.