The Dark Side of Show Don't Tell

>> Friday, December 9, 2016

The other day, I was caught by surprise by some feedback on a short story. Not because it was uncomplimentary--that happens, I think, to all writers at some point--but because what she did (and didn't) get out of it was almost exactly the opposite of (a) what I intended and (b) what my other readers of this story have gotten out of it. Now let me be clear, I'm very grateful when anyone not only reads something I've written but takes the time to comment and the more detail the better. I was certainly not shortchanged in that regard. I love hearing an honest response because I want my writing to be the best it can be. That does not mean I have to follow all advice I get (or, technically, any of it) because it's my name on it.  

But, if I want my writing to be more than an exercise in self-gratification, I have to remember that communication involves two interested parties, not just one. I can snicker away all day at my character's banter or antics, but, if I don't communicate them effectively to a reader, I'm snickering alone. Which is fine if that's all I want, but not if I want to actually touch people.

But, by that same token, as a reader, I have some responsibilities, too. I, as a reader, am going to have to see beyond the surface words and look for inferences and inflection, make connections, listen for nuance and tone in conversations and small actions. If I must have every relationship and detail explained, I should stick to reading medicine bottles and skip fiction altogether, because good writing is as much about what the author doesn't overtly say as what she does say.

One of the most pervasive mantras in any writing venue is "Show, don't tell." And it's damn good advice which is why it's ubiquitous. There are several reasons for this, including, (a) it's boring as hell to hear a litany of data instead of seeing things happen and people grow, (b) if you're not careful, the very descriptions you provide on a character's intelligence or kindness doesn't play out in the words and actions of said character, which is a good way to crucify him with a reader, and (c) it's often the difference between someone telling you a story and you living it. Most writers I know strive for having their readers immersed and a part of it.

But, like most things in a subjective media, it's not a binary proposition. Not being subtle enough (telling not showing) is insulting to a perceptive reader. Being too subtle or oblique is frustrating and confusing and insulting in a different way. But readers are not the same. Some readers may pick up on lots of clues and delight in putting them together. Others may prefer only a modicum of subtleties or a certain type and find themselves readily baffled when confronted with a layered story. In part, that drives choosing an audience, but it also means that you as a writer, need to find the right level of subtlety and clarity to convey what you want to convey to your target audience. And there will be misses: some you can fix with a little more/less clarity, some you can't without corrupting what you want to say or losing the bulk of your audience.

Bottom line, though, this whole exercise reminded me that this communication of story, of characters, of action, of what I wanted to say, wasn't just about me, and that I should check once in a while with my target audience to make sure what I was saying was coming through as I intended, because I hate to snicker alone. And I think it's worthwhile to talk about critical reading skills because the same skills that let you pick up on context and subtleties in fiction are useful in the real "nonfiction" world of Main Stream Media where spin is king and emotional manipulation (usually toward outrage) is the name of the game. Being wary of inflammatory subtleties and overt manipulation is useful when trying to get at the kernels of truth, or identifying a source with an agenda. Critical reading, like critical thinking, helps separate the chaff from the wheat, so get those reading glasses on and let's have fun like it's fourth grade and we're doing those silly inane passages for reading comprehension except this one is fun and at higher than a fourth grade level, because, hey, you wouldn't be reading this blog if you were still reading on that level.

Note, since blogger puts everything in italics, the "bolded" bits are actually italics.

"Can you believe that guy, K'Ti?" Darma ranted, her ready rage giving her voice real carrying power. She towered over her petite brown companion, a slim blonde beauty as supple and sharp as her laser blue eyes. "Hemming and hawing and desperate for any excuse to stop us from going out to collect plants in broad daylight when he and his shapeshifting buddies—even his non-shape-shifting buddies—go out hunting every night. Hell, last time he went hunting, he came back with a hole in his ass so big, I had to give him blood half a dozen times so he didn't die. And then—then—he gets this uptight look on his face, and tells me I need to be careful but he'll let us go by ourselves against his better judgement. Let us!

Wouldn't getting a hole in my ass argue how dangerous it is, you crazy girl? Laren fumed, from his hiding place in the tree behind them.

Her companion, K'Ti, in that tight voice she used just before she went after a body with a wooden spoon, said "I noticed. It's not as if you could have been any clearer when he tried to bull his way onto our expedition."

"I know, right? Getting all bossy with me. Damn it, I'm three years older than he is," Darma kicked the underbrush. "You're lucky you have Xander. At least he respected you enough not to try to talk you out of it."

"Xander was only wise enough to lose an argument in a way no one else could hear," K'Ti corrected, her voice grim. K'Ti had a prodigious temper, too, and Laren had been on the receiving end a time or two. Laren felt an edge of respect for his foster brother, Xander, going toe-to-toe with the formidable healer even if only in their minds.

"Oh, right, Xander's a telepath even in his human form," Darma said, with a touch of envy. "Didn't think about that. Must be convenient."

"I think it's cheating. It is much harder to speak forcefully when you can't speak."

Darma laughed at that, ""Shoulda just yelled at him anyway, made him look foolish."

K'Ti sighed. "Or I would have looked so. I've been with him on this same route to gather plants two dozen times without problems. There's no reason to think I would not be safe with you. But, in the end, he did promise not to come unless we called for him."

"Will he do it?"

K'Ti appeared surprised. "Of course he will," she said as if that were almost insulting, then added, "I will know if he doesn't keep to his word. There is no hiding it from me."

Darma laughed again, her temper subsiding as it usually did as quickly as it came. "Empath and a telepath hooking up. No one can escape. Is Xander off the suppressant? He hasn't had a fever in three days. I mean, he can change into a dragon if he needs to, right?"

 So 501 words, no overt action so far, but have we wasted our time or have we learned something?

For instance, who is Darma mad at (name is not required but extra points if you guess it): (a) Father, (b) Head honcho, (c) overprotective boyfriend?

Are these folks, as a whole, normal humans or do they have special abilities. If the latter, can you name some of the abilities possible? Does everyone have the same set of abilities?

Is Laren part of the conversation? If not, what is he doing?

What connection does Xander (referenced but not included here) have to the other characters? What powers do we know he has? Extra credit if you can identify one of K'Ti's capabilities as well.

Whose POV (Point of View) is this story written in?

I tried to put clues to answer all these questions (and more) in here, but, and I can't stress it enough, you're not "wrong" if you answer differently than I intended or you can't answer a question. That just means I need to work a little harder. But isn't it fun to fathom out a story? Or maybe it's just me.

I would LOVE it if people wrote down their responses to this.



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