What Is Telling, Anyway?

The reasoning behind show, don’t tell is straightforward. A reader identifies with a character, and so he wants to participate in that character’s life. Through acts a character enables that participation. If you merely told the reader about what the character did, in a narrative summary, the reader is left on the outside looking in.

Yet showing and telling are more symbiotic than the austere formula suggests. For instance, I am constantly asking authors to follow up a piece of action with the character’s reaction to what happened. What did she feel about that? Some authors are puzzled by this advice. Aren’t I telling the reader rather than showing her? 

So, let’s define terms. Telling is a shortcut, like indirect prose. You use it to reveal information of a lesser sort, not worth writing a full scene about it. For instance, to help the reader understand why Emma is feeling sad about the impending death of her two-year relationship, she relates a narrative summary about seeing a text of Brad’s on his phone, flirting with an office mate. The text is vibrant and funny the way he hasn’t been with Emma in weeks. It’s no big deal, really, so Emma runs through her feelings in a summary paragraph. It’s just another nail in the coffin, and telling handles the job efficiently.

On the other hand, if Emma then told the reader about her break-up with Brad—rather than writing out a full scene showing the break-up—you’re violating the rule. We want to participate in that plot turn, especially if Emma and Brad have been together for any length of time during the book. The more scenes they have together, the more an author needs to show them breaking up. As a reader, I want to know what Emma says when she holds up the stiff underwear for him to explain. I don’t want a report about it. Show me the dirty linen. Then I can participate. I can be shocked, dismayed, or whatever you want the payoff to be.

Now let’s return to a character’s reaction to a plot event. If you tell the reader what the character is feeling, you’re not violating the principle. You’re already inside the scene showing the action. You’re inside the character’s mind. The emotion contained in the character’s reaction has a direct effect on what happens next. Showing and telling interlock, the way everything in good writing works together.

Exercise: Review your manuscript for the way you’re handling different plot events. Do you see any narrative summaries that, now you know how the book turns out, might want to be converted into full-fledged scenes? Do you feel time is dragging in any full-length scenes that now don’t have that much bearing on what happens later? Calibrate plot weight on the show-tell balance scale.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.