Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules--Show, Don't Tell, part 2

I love to read Dean Koontz. What a wonderful writer.

Guess what--Dean Koontz tells. Quite a lot. But he does it in a form that works.

In my early days as a novelist I occasionally fell into the trap of trying to write like Koontz. I didn't do it consciously. But Koontz's voice would be running through my head as I created a scene. And--voila. Some imitation would come out on the page. Interestingly, if taken all by itself--that is, out of the context of my story--it wasn't bad writing. But in context it didn't work at all. The passages just sounded stilted, like overwritten telling.

Why? (Other than the fact that I'll never write as well as Dean Koontz.)

It took me some time to realize the answer. I write in close third person--the most intimate form of third. In this close third person, I always try to describe things as the character would describe them. I want the character's voice to come through, not my own as author.

Koontz doesn't always write like this. Often his third person is not close third, but more removed. We're still in the character's head, but in removed third person the narrative is more formal, allowing the author's voice to come through in description. In this removed third, a passage that should be "shown" in close third can now be written more in the form of "telling."

When, in my close third person, I wrote a passage a la Koontz, the result was a pulling back of intimacy with my character. Her voice would change, suddenly more distant and formal. In that context, the passage would stick out like a sore thumb.

Consider this paragraph describing a "bad guy" in Koontz's Dragon Tears:

Of all the extraordinary things about the ratman, his eyes were the most disturbing ... The eyes made the ratman's body seem like merely a disguise, a rubber suit, as if something unspeakable peered out of a costume at a world on which it had not been born but which it coveted.

The last sentence is certainly descriptive. Gives us the sense that this bad guy may not even be quite human. This ratman is seen here through the eyes of the POV character, a homeless man. But Koontz is not employing the close form of third person. He's using removed third. In close third, this character's voice wouldn't use such a formal-sounding phrase as ... a world on which it had not been born but which it coveted. But because the whole book is written in removed third, such "telling" passages work.

In Dark Pursuit, my novel coming out in November, one of the main characters is Darell Brooke, a suspense writer. A few chapters in Dark Pursuit are from Darell's own suspense novel that he's desperately trying to write. I wanted Darrel Brooke's writing to be very different from my own. In my own writing for the character of Darrel--and every other POV character in the story--I used the close third person I usually employ. But for Darrel's writing, I pulled back into a removed third. (I also switched to present tense.) As soon as I did this, I found myself using more "telling." It's what comes naturally in removed third. Here's a passage in the smugly arrogant bad guy's POV from Darrel Brooke's novel. (In this passage the POV is so removed as to sound close to ominiscient.)

Deep in the night Leland Hugh walks the town.

Darkness is his ally.

In movies and in books the dark has been unworthily portrayed. Unpredictable, ferocious, protector of evil and ugliness. The hour of vampires and witches and goblins. Hider of sins.

The velvet blackness drapes soft on the back of Hugh’s neck.

This night the pavement sheens from recent rain. Lamp post light glides across asphalt as he passes, ghost galleons in a shallow sea.

Although the air is warm Hugh detects a whisper of coming autumn.

He traverses the central downtown street, nerves thrumming to the music of its silence. Twelve hours ago shoppers and lunchers filled these blocks, fiercely intent on their useless errands and gossip of the absurd. Their absence fills Hugh with a quiet joy. He entertains the thought of himself as sole survivor of the town, an unbridled and brilliant founder of new beginnings.

The world according to Leland Hugh.

He reaches an intersection and swerves diagonally to the opposite curb.

His footsteps strike without noise. This is an art he has perfected. Fear may be unleashed through the shriek of power, but nothing is as terrifying as soundless dread.

If I stuck this kind of "telling" description in the middle of one of Darrel's POV scenes, it would sound out of place. Darrel himself, in close third person, sounds like this:

Three times they repeated the process. Pills, always pills, day and night. He didn’t even know what he took anymore. Most of them were vitamins and herbs. Did no good at all, except to keep snake oil salesmen in business. As for the inventor of the one that was supposed to make him think more clearly—Darell could imagine a million torturous ways to kill the shyster off in his next book.

If he ever had a next book.

Bottom line: there is a form of writing in which "telling" works on a regular basis. It depends on the kind of third person you use. If you're using removed third, or the most distant POV of all--omniscient--telling can sound right. But most likely, you're automatically using close third because that's the form we're used to reading these days. If that's the case, you shouldn't look at authors like Koontz and say, "He's telling, so why can't I?" That's like packing a few apples in a crate of oranges and wondering why the colors don't match.


Timothy Fish said...

You’re right, mixing author styles doesn’t work and an author changing style midstream can be a problem. As true as that is, I think that is a separate issue from the issue of showing versus telling. Please correct me if I misunderstood, but you seem to be saying that the last sentence of the Dragon Tears passage is telling rather than showing because he steps away from the character’s voice and uses words that the character wouldn’t use. This seems to imply that as long as the reader can see it through the character’s eyes (ears, hands, mind, etc), the author is showing, but we step back and use language the character wouldn’t use then it is the author’s voice telling the reader. While I can understand how a person might describe that as showing versus telling, it deviates from my concept of what it means to show versus tell.

In the Dragon Tears passage, we have a scene in which (if this is close POV) the character is describing his encounter with the ratman. From the first sentence we know about the POV character’s emotions toward this man, but at this point, all the character has done is told us how he felt, using words like extraordinary and disturbing. If we stop there, the reader knows the character is disturbed by the man’s eye, but he doesn’t know why. It isn’t until Koontz describes the character in that next sentence that the reader understands why the POV character is disturbed. It is at that point that the reader says, “Now I see!” If we only had the second sentence, we as readers, would still find the eyes of the character disturbing, because we can see the character’s odd looking body.

The essence of my understanding of show, don’t tell is that we must allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. Instead of saying, “the child reached for the hot stove,” for example, we might say, “the red glow of the heating element reflected off the child’s hand as he reached for the stove.” Adding the POV character’s emotion to this scene doesn’t help, because what we want is for the reader to scream “don’t touch that!” The exception to that is when the POV character’s emotion is different from the emotion we expect from the reader. If the POV character laughs when he sees this happen then we are showing the reader that the POV character doesn’t think properly.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Timothy, thanks for your comment. The show vs. tell issue is a big one. Each post about it here has only shown one aspect. Your understanding of show vs. tell aren't wrong. They're just one piece of the puzzle, with the topic as a whole being more convoluted.

Lynette Sowell said...

This makes a lot of sense to me. So, if someone's gonna tell, they better do a bang-up job of it. I think of the storyTELLERS who used to sit around the fires, spinning tales, and definitely telling and not splitting hair over POV. Great points! :) Truth is, there are few writers today who are good tellers.

Anonymous said...

There is a huge difference between the "tell" in show, don't tell and the "tell" in storyteller. The important question here is What does it mean for a storyteller to show a story? To show means to use one of the five senses, vision. In showing, the reader should be able to see the scene unfold before her. Of course we also want to use other senses as well. A campfire storyteller might tell about the ghost train's whistle, employing the listener's sense of hearing. When the listener hear's an owl or a coyotee, she may remember the train's whistle. The storyteller will mention the light shaking as it moves down the tracks, so that another camper walking through the woods with a flashlight will remind the listener of the train. The storyteller may mention that there was a chill in the air when the ghost train passed, with its ghostly riders, so that the listeners will remember that chill when they step away from the fire. True showing only occurs when the storyteller employs at least one of the audiences five senses.

Anonymous said...

"Show" can also mean "to demonstrate" and that doesn't always use the five senses.

Carrie said...

I am more of a reader than a writer. One the biggest pet peeves I have is when a writer constantly tells. It's even more irritating when it is about emotions. I want the character to show me how they feel instead of telling me how they feel.

Stephen King wrote a wonderful book on writing, interesting enough, titled On Writing. He deals with the "show or tell" issue in this book. I think this is a wonderful book for all writers. I was so happy that he touched on the subject. I'm not a reader of King's novels, but if he's more of a show than tell type of writer, I can understand why he's so popular.