The Art of Show vs. Tell

>> Wednesday, April 5, 2017

In a previous blog post in December, I noted that there was a dark side to show don't tell. That's because, if you don't actually spell every little detail out, people could miss it and then complain that they're confused, which is no way to have a reader. Titillated, yes, but not confused or frustrated.

It's not a black and white business and making things full of delightful subtleties to please one audience might lose you one that wants things less obscure, just as a straightforward narrative might bore someone who lives for nuance. Pick the audience you want. That's one of the challenges.

But show vs. tell is ubiquitous advice for a very good reason: it makes reading so much more compelling and interesting. I love it as a writer and strive for it; I don't know a writer that doesn't.

Actually pulling off show don't tell is another thing altogether, though,because showing is more difficult than just saying:

John was a tall boy with red hair, lots of freckles and love of basketball.
However, it doesn't have any personality. It's dull and lifeless and says next to nothing about John. Now, try this:

If Sarah wanted to find John, she knew better than to look for him in the library or studying. Depth of winter or height of summer, she could find him on the outdoor court in the park, his short red hair spiky with sweat, his freckles so numerous he looked like he had a rash. He might not have put any meat on his gangly form, that seemed to shoot up overnight, but he knew how to move it around the basketball court and get that orange ball to do everything but fix him lunch.
Now, what do we know? Well, everything from the first sentence, of course, which makes sense since this one's more than five times longer. But, we also know he has a relationship with Sarah good enough she knows where to find him and where not to find him, that he's not addicted to studying, that his height is a recent thing, and that he not only loves basketball, he's damn good at it. And now there's also a much stronger sense of who he is. He hasn't said anything. He hasn't done anything, really, but I think we'd be speculating about his personality to a much higher degree in the second paragraph than the first. There's also a potential for someone who might be interested in the topic to become interested in where it goes from here. And who's Sarah?

Interactions between people are a great way to enact show vs. tell. What they say to each other, how they react. Dialog between people can provide backstory or explain something complex without just writing it out. You can explain motivations, move the story forward, make sociological points and, the great thing, is it all seems so natural. Like you weren't actually writing it.

Action can be show don't tell. If the character is limping, I don't have to explain  he hurt himself or why he isn't chasing someone. If he punches someone in the face, I don't have to pause and tell the reader: that guy really irritated my character. Actions tell us who someone really is, character-wise, what you stand for, what you won't stand for, what matters.

But, that's why it can be tricky. The more clearly you define your character through dialog and interactions and action, the more careful you have to be not to change course midstream, either to fulfill a plot point or to make things fit. I can't speak for all readers but, for me, since characters are my favorite, I hate when I feel like I've identified with a character and then they do something out of character. At best, it can make the identity and personality of the character murky which isn't what you want. At worst, it can drive a reader away (yes, that's happened to me).

But what does that mean? It means you can't make a protective chivalrous guy rape his girlfriend and keep that image. It means you can't make someone who has proven to be a loyal friend over time sell out his buds for a bit of spending capital. You can't have Quigon Jin accept the notion that a small boy will run a very dangerous race so you can get funds (say what? the space station doesn't take off-world money? How contrived is that?) or that you'll take him away from that mother and leave her as a slave. Unless you like to see Liam Neeson rolling his eyes at his own lines.

More subtly, you can't express how clever someone is without showing it in deed. You can't convince us that someone's an expert if they flub it every time they come up against anything out of the ordinary. They can't be a badass and get their butt whipped every fight. Show your character to be clever or faithful or kind or brutal or whatever they are. Make sure the exceptions have motivations that make sense (we all have exceptions).

In the end, I think it's all about getting to know someone much like their friends and new characters get to know them and finding about them in a natural sort of way.

At least, that's how I see it.

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