Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Show me, don't tell me

How do you know what you know?

All the little stories you tell, whether on the page or in the bar or around the water cooler: how did they get into your head in the first place?

There are two ways, right? There are the events you personally experience and there are the stories that are passed on to you from the lips of others. Right?

So which stories are richer? More real? The ones you heard about? No. The ones you experienced with your own five senses are more real; the stories where you were present; a participant.

When a storyteller writes a novel or other story there are two ways to get material across to the reader and no requirement to be consistent from paragraph to paragraph: At any given point you can explain things, such as the way a character is feeling or what a character is thinking in their head for instance. This is telling. In the old days telling was the norm. Most novels of old were mostly told; explained in other words.

The alternative is showing. When a writer shows, he embeds the reader in the story by writing only dialogue, description and imagery. In other words the writer restricts the narrative to a transcript of the five senses, describing what is seen and heard, and sometimes what is smelled, tasted or felt to the touch, all without explanations of relevance. When this is done well, the reader can interpret what is going on; can interpret what the character is feeling; can interpret what is motivating the characters. Regular (audible) dialogue is always show of course. Internal dialogue is tell.

Telling is explanation. Telling is a story you just hear about. Showing requires more work. It requires more work of authors because they must fully imagine a scene in order to know exactly what sensory material to provide. And it requires more work of the reader’s brain to interpret the products of the senses in order to deduce the softer realities of the story and through this work is brought into the story and experiences the story first hand. A well-shown story makes the reader feel like he or she was present in it. It feels real.

These days agents, publishers and teachers of writing clamor for “Show! Don’t tell!” and it’s funny because hordes of beginner writers nod their heads but then don’t get it. They think they are showing when they’re really telling.

Is telling outlawed? No. Mostly I try to show stories but lots of telling slips in. I’m not convinced there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to write a novel that is 100% show. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road perhaps achieves this or at least comes close.

Toronto author Ray Bradbury is a master of subtlety. That’s a code word for showing. Showing is subtle because no meanings are stated but are all derived from reading between the lines or deciphering the products of the senses just as we do in real life when we absorb everything around us through the senses and then interpret the events; when we interpret what the people around us are thinking and feeling and what is motivating them.

Can you still write a great story by telling? I think perhaps so, but you will be limited in how real you can make it feel. I celebrate the diversity of stories and some unique stories with unique styles are perhaps best told; not shown. Regardless there is certainly a market for tell. Most notably the YA (young adult) market.

When I began working with grade seven/eight kids I was startled to see them failing to appreciate the opportunities I gave them to learn subtlety. I finally came to understand that kids are not ready for it. They instinctively aren’t prepared to work that hard intellectually, or rather, it just doesn’t happen for them naturally yet. They are still expecting explanation. This is one of the most profound things that I learned from that whole coaching experience; that the kids taught me. YA books are glaring to me in their absence of subtlety. But I now understand that this is intentional; this is the primary criteria which makes a book YA and not adult.

Many adults profess to love the YA genre. They prefer it. My interpretation is that they just haven’t evolved to appreciate show-don’t-tell subtlety. Reading YA is easier to do, but it does not offer the richest rewards of experiencing a story; being there, rather than just hearing about it.

I have never shed tears when an author writes, her heart collapsed under a wave of sorrow. Provided the right context, I would shed tears when an author writes, she collapsed onto the bed, face buried in pillow, and wailed silently.

1 comment:

Troy Gillespie said...

One of the best 'showings' I've ever read:

A big Thank You to the Author. I get teary eyed every time I read A Good Christmas.

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Here's the funny thing. When I went flyin' through the door and started yellin' for Jeanie, I din't call her Jeanie. I called her Mom by mistake. That was weird. I never done that before. I din't even notice what I'd said until a bit later when I was standin' in the bathroom and she was pickin' though my hair and lookin' at my head. That's when I realized what I'd said and I felt pretty silly but I din't worry too much about it right then. I was too busy shakin' and tryin' not to cry and just tryin' to wish the hurtin' away.

Jeanie said my head would be okay and then she said, right to my face, "But it must hurt like hell, don't it?" Now that was really weird. I wasn't the only one sayin' funny things that day. 'Cause Jeanie never said a swear-word before - at least that I'd heard. Even Charlie almost never swears and I sure wasn't allowed to. She kind of patted my back and said, "Does it hurt like hell?"

So I said, "Yeah Jeanie, it hurts like hell!" It felt really crazy to swear in front of her like that. It kind of took my mind off the hurtin'. But I sure din't start goin' around swearin' all the time after that. I figured the rules would be right back in place just as soon as I was feelin' better.

I saw that Jeanie's eyes were all shiny, like she was gonna cry. So I had to be brave. "It's okay, Jeanie!" I said. "It hurts like hell but I'll be alright!" She kind of laughed and kissed me on the forehead and gave me such a hug I felt like a tube of toothpaste and she was tryin' to squeeze the last glob out of me. When she was done I had to catch my breath. She used her sleeve to wipe a tear off my face and I was a little embarrassed about that until I remembered that the tear wasn't mine.

Later when Charlie came home from work we told him how Jake's garage door got me, and Jeanie told him, "It hurt like hell but he's alright now." Charlie gave her a funny look and we all laughed.