Sunday, March 28, 2010

The business of show (not tell)

One of the first rules I ever encountered was:
Show, don't tell.
Again, my mind screamed, "What does that mean?!"  Aren't we writing stories and, therefore, telling a story?  So isn't it always telling?
Well apparently not!  Here's what I learned.

Telling is more…well…telling the reader what happened, whereas, showing allows the reader to read it firsthand.  For example:

Telling - John called the sheriff and told him about the crime.
Showing - John picked up the phone and dialed the sheriff.  "Yes, Sheriff?  There's been a crime."
See how the showing example involves more action? It's a boring little detail, but possibly necessary for the plot that John call that sheriff.  They both relay the same message, but the showing version draws the reader in and involves them in the action instead of just telling them about it.
There is quite a debate about show vs. tell.  The theory is that showing is more intense and will draw the reader in.  Telling will just bore the reader to tears.
A fact that I found interesting is that showing didn't really become popular until the early 1900s.  Before that, the standard was to tell.  So what I wonder is, how much of these rules are really just a product of the preferences of the readership at the time?
I was reading a book series where the author just loved to tell everything.  Lots of telling and very little showing.  I love the world and the plots were okay.  However, I had to put the book down several times and nearly stopped reading altogether because the telling got old quick.  The only reason I kept reading was because the world the author created was extremely detailed and my OCD kicked in and I wanted to finish the series.  That and the later books got a little better on that front.
I won't get into a big debate here because that's been done and redone too many times.  My goal for this post is just to point out what Showing/Telling is and to state that it's the preference these days to show and kick tell to the curb.
So, show and NEVER tell.  Of course that gets my brain whirring.  I swear, just use the word "never" and that alone will jumpstart my little brain and get me thinking of examples where telling would be more appropriate.
What if, my brain asks, there's a long passage of time, say a road trip, where nothing really happens, but it's important to know so that the reader knows there's a passage of time, not to mention how they got to be 500 miles from where they started.
How about something like:

The road trip to Phoenix was uneventful.  John and Mary made the trip in record time.

That's definitely telling and, depending on the plot, possibly necessary to the story.  This doesn't bore the reader into a coma with showing scenes of them driving in silence for 500 miles, occasionally stopping for gas and bathroom breaks.  Yes, that's exciting stuff!  Maybe, to really spice things up, they buy Funyuns at one of the gas stations. Perhaps there was a Cheetos vs. Funyuns debate.  Oh boy, now we're talking some action. If we're really lucky, there'll be a showtunes scene.
Yeah, the reader doesn't need to know all that detail.  Who cares if they had Cheetos or Funyuns (or both for that matter)?  It's not necessary to the plot.  It's just extra fluff.
The pro-show side of the audience is now screaming at me.  A counter-argument to this tell example would be to put in a scene break and then show what happened.  Supposedly, this is a dying artform.

John grinned.  "It's decided.  We're going to Phoenix."
(scene break)
John pulled the car into the driveway.  He turned to Mary and said, "Wow, it sure is hot and dry here in Phoenix, but we made that trip in record time."
Mary nodded in his direction, but remained silent, obviously still upset.
John opened the door and stepped out, muttering under his breath.  "I still think Cheetos beats out Funyuns any day of the week."
Okay, so I added a bit of flair to that example.  I couldn't help myself.  It doesn't have to be so cheesy, but it's just an exaggerated example to prove the counter point to the telling point I made previously.

I thought up another example from one of my own works in progress.  I have a scene where the main character goes to the bathroom.  I know she's fictional, but I wanted to give her a little privacy, so I didn't show her actually using the facilities, I told.  I know, I know…put the cuffs on and lock me up in writers prison immediately!  And before you ask, yes it was necessary for the plot that she go to the bathroom.  If you must know, it proves how tight security needed to be and, ironically enough, showed her lack of privacy during that particular time.
The counter point to my point was that just because you show doesn't mean you have to add more words.  It doesn't have to be all purple prose and flowery.  Sometimes simple is better.

So instead of the several sentences I used to tell about the process, I could have just written something like:

"I'll be right out here if you need anything."  Denny's voice came from the other room, the open bathroom door affording little privacy.  Her sister stood in the doorway, in view of them both.
Under her sister's watchful eye, Kat attempted to go about her daily bathroom routine without being too self-conscious.  Geez, does everyone need to see me pee?
Believe it or not, this version is quite a bit more concise than my telling version.  The above example is showing and it's actually a lot less verbiage.  Okay, okay, there is a little bit of telling still in there, but it's much less than before.

So…maybe there's something to this whole show, don't tell thing.  Just don't tell the pro-show people that.

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