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


michael snyder said...

Ooh, pick me! Pick me! I want to be killed off at a conference!

I think you nailed it when you talked about intimacy. That's it for me--the intimacy, conflict, connection, all that stuff that keeps the dream alive and makes the reader forget they're holding a book. Putting the pertinent stuff on stage and using all five or six senses increases those odds.

(I guess the flip side of that would be to tell boringly as possible. It's way easier to dream when you're sleeping!)

D. Robert Pease said...

I'm really enjoying your "rules" posts. I'm deep into editing my first novel now, and these are coming in quite handy.

I'm jealous you are going to Mount Herman, a good friend of mine, Dave McClellan, will be teaching a Scriptwriting workshop. It sounds like a great conference. Maybe next year.

Timothy Fish said...

“Show, don’t tell” means different things to different people. People in the movie industry would say that it mean that instead of having a supporting character walk in and say, “Joe is a well trained athlete; he works out at the gym five times a week,” show Joe is jogging shorts dusting his track and field trophies while the he talks someone about whatever the real story is. Ironically, from a screenwriter’s perspective, slipping inside a character’s head and stating such things as “the fire grew in his belly,” is an example of telling rather than showing.

For me, showing versus telling extends far beyond painting more detail into a scene as the example does. I am currently working on a book and I know that the main character (MC) is going to face a character called the Raven about 70,000 words into the book. Rather than tell the reader at that point that the Raven is a bad dude, I make references to him with earlier events, a house fire with his name written on a door, a murder in which he calls the news media and tells them that he did it, the people who have dealt with him all say “don’t cross him.” Even the name is a reference to Poe’s poem because if this guy doesn’t like you, you’ll be “nevermore.” I want my readers to see him as I see him, a shadowy figure who can and will do anything to get what he wants. The point being that the Raven outclasses my high school English teacher MC in every way, this isn’t a guy the MC can defeat and yet the MC is willing to face him to protect the woman he loves. To show the reader who this guy requires mentioning him in several chapters, but to tell the reader would take a paragraph.

Lianne said...

Have a great time at Mt. Hermon. Just go easy on the corpse count. :) Thanks for the rules lessons. I look forward to more next week. Meanwhile, I'll be working my way through the archives. Great stuff! said...

Brandilyn, your examples in these past few posts have been extremely helpful for me. I see errors that I make, and now I'm conscious of them and working to break those habits!