Thursday, March 13, 2008
Rules, Rules, Rules--Show, Don't Tell
Show, don't tell.
What a maddening, non-specific, confusing "rule." What in the heck does it mean anyway? And what good is a "rule" if it has so many exceptions?
Bottom line, this rule means: communicate information to your reader through a character's actions, expressions, words, or perceptions rather than communicating through author narrative.
Many times the rule is right on. If a place or person or action can be described through the eyes of a character rather than simply told straight from the author, it will be more effective--particularly if you are writing in close third person. (And most writers today do, because the majority of current fiction is written that way, and it's what we're used to.) The problem with switching to telling is that the POV is pulled back from close third to a narrative tone. We lose intimacy with the character and the scene.
Consider this telling passage in the middle of a scene in which a killer has hurried through a forest to lurk near a path, waiting for his victim to appear:
The sky was the slate blue of early morning. Soon the sound of crunching gravel rose from the path. A jogger rounded the corner. A blonde. She ran rhythmically, at about a ten-mile-a-minute pace, holding her body with ease. Her elbows were bent and her hands held low. This would be the last jog she ever took.
This is a scene in which the reader should be on edge, leading up to a murder. Not the place to pull back. To "show" the scene, actions, reactions and perceptions of the POV character are used so we experience the sights and sounds through the killer. Here's the scene as it appears in my novel Eyes of Elisha:
At a sound, he jerked up his head, ears cocked, legs quivering. He heard the rhythmic crunch, crunch of a ten-minute-mile pace but saw no one. His heart turned into an erratic pump. Crunch, crunch. Soles on gravel. Crunch, crunch. The fire grew in his belly. Unconsciously, his hand felt again for the switchblade and tightened around it. Crunch, crunch. Air rattled down his throat.
With ultimate clarity he saw her, outlined against the early morning sky as if bounding toward him on three-dimensional film. The sudden sight of her blonde hair bouncing, her easily held body, sucked away his breath.
Elbows slightly bent, hands low, she rounded what would be her last bend in Trent Park.
A stronger scene, to be sure. It's also a whole lot longer. And that's why sometimes showing is necessary. We can "show" effectively when certain events aren't worthy of a whole scene or of being depicted moment by moment within a scene. If we showed everything, our books would be boring. Some actions you just need to skim over and move on to the next compelling event.
"Show, don't tell" is quite a big topic, and we could discuss it more. I will probably take this topic up again next week. For now--today I am going to Mount Hermon. I'm teaching a fiction mentoring clinic and serving on the critique team. I'll be able to return to regular blogging next Wednesday or Thursday. In the interim I'll post a quick bit of gossip from the conference if I can. Or perhaps I shall see who I can kill off this year ...
Read Part 12