Episode 2: SHOW NOT TELL
This week, I'm going to look at the most vital element to get right if you want to truly involve readers in your story: Show Not Tell. By the way, if you hear someone shouting "Enunciate!" in the background, it's my partner. She doesn't know I'm recording an article, she just thinks I mumble a lot.
Okay, now Show Not Tell can be a difficult concept to grasp. One reason is that we grow up being told stories - by parents, teachers and those hyper-active children's TV presenters with teeth that make you squint. But when we come to write our own stories, it's not a simple case of converting from being a listener to a teller; we have to learn how to show a story instead.
But rather than start with written examples, let's first take a look at how Show Not Tell also affects our lives. One reason for doing this is I believe of all writing techniques, this is the one most directly related to how we all communicate with others, whether we're writers or not.
So . . . you're in a restaurant with a girl. It's the third time you've been out together and your pounding heart says for you it's serious. You're desperate to know if she feels the same way about you. Everything depends on her answer; your entire life will change if she says yes.
So, why not just ask her? She can tell you right up front - yes or no - then you won't have to commit your nerves and expectations; you can sit back and enjoy the meal. Well, okay, you won't be too relaxed if she turns you down, but at least you'll know, and the agony will be over.
The problem is, she doesn't want to Tell you now, because she hasn't fully decided yet. She wants to Show you - indications, hints, possibilities - and see what you Show her by return.
And, even more frustrating for you and your plans, she wants to do this by talking about anything other than what you're desperate to know. It doesn't matter what the subject is - because it's what's shown by the way you talk, the actions you make and don't make, that will draw out the magic: if it's there.
And let's stop right here, because this is the nub of Show Not Tell. If there's magic in your story, it can only be transferred by how you show it working. David Copperfield doesn't come out on stage and just tell you about the elephant he could make disappear and how the trick's done: you want to see the elephant and then, well, not see it.
So, if you really do have feelings for her, and it's not just some fancy game you're playing on yourself, you'll use that talk about the country's current economical downturn to Show her your feelings. And if she has the same feelings, then by the end of the meal you can just smile at each other and know that both your lives are going to change forever. Then, of course, there's the thorny question of who pays the bill, and that probably requires some Telling, truth be told, at least until you know each other better.
Now let's look at the opening of two very different novels. Here's the first line of 'The Fourth Estate' by Jeffrey Archer:
The odds were stacked against him. But the odds had never worried Richard Armstrong in the past.
And here's the first line of 'Northern Lights' by Philip Pullman:
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
And the start of the second paragraph:
Lyra stopped beside the Master's chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly in the Hall.
So, Archer's book begins with two statements that just tell us two things about the character: the odds are against him but he's not the type to worry about it. Which is fine if we're interviewing him for a job but there's nothing for us to get involved in: the second statement simply answers the first.
Pullman doesn't tell us anything directly about Lyra. He describes her moving in the dark, taking care not to be seen, doing something she probably shouldn't be. So we're instantly drawn in: why is she doing this and what sort of person is she? We're on her journey with her. And of course ' . . . her daemon' is another great Show: what is it and where can I get one? Next, Pullman shows her stopping, letting her curiosity overcome her fear of discovery, to play with a glass - and not just any glass: the Master's glass. So already we know a lot about her: that she's rebellious and reckless, and full of curiosity - yet none of this has been told. There may even be a character clue in the fact she pings the biggest glass; or they may not be. A more telling author would have told us that she flicked the biggest glass because it was in her nature to always take on the toughest challenge. But in just showing it, Pullman creates some space around a character, like a little vacuum that we want to fill with our interest, not necessarily right now.
By contrast, blockbuster characters tend to be unmemorable: because you're simply told that they're brave, funny, witty, etc. To go back to our couple in the restaurant - he could try telling her he's got a good sense of humour and is considerate of others' needs; he might as well tell her he's rich while he's at it. But guess what? She's not going to commit to him until she actually sees his humour and consideration of others in action.
Now, here's a passage from 'Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack' by M E Kerr, a young adult novel published in 1972:
P John Knight got up in Creative Writing and read his new story, 'Answered Prayers'.
It was science fiction.
It was about a future word entirely under the control of one man and one woman: Mama and Papa. Everyone took dope which Mama and Papa gave them. Everyone had the same last name: Love. The people with high IQs became slaves, and took care of the machines which did all the work. Everyone sat around in stupors, listening to television and saying, 'Mama loves you. Papa loves you,' and watching the word 'Love' spelled out in endless animated designs. There were no wars and no one went hungry. Everyone liked everyone else regardless of race or color, except for the 'brains' who lived in automated prisons guarded by automatons.
Notice how she doesn't tell us a single direct thing about P John Knight but we know a lot about him from this, and we're involved. We want to see why he thinks this way; if he really hates his mother and father as much as he appears to; and if he really is an outcast because of his intelligence or because he likes to wind up the liberals in his class, or both.
Now, M E Kerr could have just written this:
P John Knight hated his mother and father, and hated the liberal views of his classmates. He also disapproved of drug-taking and saw himself to be cleverer than most others.
But this is flat and uninvolving, and basically not as much fun as seeing him directly challenging his classmates. Also, and most importantly, it doesn't allow for the shades of feeling P John actually has for his parents and class mates. Which is very important for his later development. For example, when he sees the real quality in Dinky, where everyone else including her parents tend to patronise her because she's overweight and dresses badly.
Another kind of Telling is dialogue 'tags'. Why 'tags'? Well, because they're like sales tags, that say 'sofa' when you're looking at a sofa, just in case you don't know what a sofa is. Dialogue tags tell you what a piece of dialogue is; for example:
"You asked to see me, sir," Jenkins said apprehensively.
"Yes, I did, Jenkins," said Sir inscrutably. "Sit down," he added unambiguously.
"Thank you sir," said Jenkins obsequiously.
And so on. Now, this is very strange, not least because people don't do this in real life. Imagine, for example, you're sitting next to our couple in the restaurant. You hear him say, "Isn't this great wine I say hesitantly." And then she says, "Yes, isn't it, I reply noncommittally." Then he says, "What do you think of the current economic downturn, I say suggestively." To which she can only reply, "It's not looking good, I say ironically."
Or, they hire a writer to sit between them so when he says, "That's hilarious!" the author says, "he laughed." She says, "I'm not sure how I feel," and the author says, "she frowned."
So, why put tags in fiction? Well, one reason is the author doesn't have enough confidence in his dialogue to let it stand on its own. And he may have a point; in which case he needs to re-write it until the way it's constructed, in keeping with each character's nature, resonates with feeling. Tags indicate the author wants to make sure you get the point; so he just tells you. But the trouble is with this is that readers get lazy if they're told everything, which means they don't invest any energy in imagining the characters, which means they end up not caring about them.
Besides, people rarely say anything with just one inflection. For example, they can be, say, two thirds angry with someone but one third frightened for them, too. So a tag which says, "he said angrily" truncates the full range of feelings involved.
Essentially, when you see a lot of tags it means the author is not working hard enough to infuse his dialogue with meaning in its own right: he's just using easy to reach, flat-pack, speech then slapping a display tag on the end so you know exactly what kind of furniture it is he's trying to sell you.
Here's how to use dialogue without tags to show character movement. This is the scene in 'Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack' where P John and Dinky meet for the first time:
'How do you do,' P John said, and then he turned back to Dinky. 'You must have another name besides Dinky.'
'It's Susan,' said Dinky.
Mrs. Hocker said, 'Dinky is our affectionate name for her.'
P John held his arm out as though Dinky were his partner for the grand march at the beginning of a fancy dress ball. 'Shall we be off, Susan?'
Basically, Showing creates meaningful space in which the reader can invest her own appraisal of a character.
For example, I once went to a bazaar in Cairo and found a jewellery box I wanted to buy for my girlfriend. So after establishing that the stallholder spoke English, I said, 'Look, I'm going to say this price then you'll say something higher, then we'll end up in the middle: so to save time why don't you just tell me what you want and I'll pay it.'
The stallholder looked offended but fortunately for me chose to explain why. He said, 'The point of bartering is that I get a chance to see what kind of man you are and you get to see what kind of man I am, and the final price is part of that.'
Finally, one more example from life that I hope will encapsulate the value of Showing above Telling.
When I was a student I once shared a house in Swansea with nine girls. Needless to say, I learnt a lot about girls from that experience, and not all of it fragrant. Anyway, I used to like Sunday mornings when the girls would drift downstairs to the living room and share stories about what they got up to on Saturday night. I'd sit in the corner and pretend I wasn't there. Some of the stories they told about boys and sex were hilarious, which was interesting since I didn't find sex all that funny, especially if I was involved.
Of course they knew I was there. They were showing me their stories, instead of just telling me. If they'd said - "Hey, Terry, we think boys and sex are hilarious" - that would have made their views definite. And definite views can be disagreed with, even rejected. Instead, they let me see their views, which is not a case for disagreement - you either share in them or not.
So, showing also preserves the integrity of the author and the reader. The magic becomes a shared experience, not a confrontational one. I don't know about you, but Telling in stories tends to make me doubt the author's ability to be so definite.
And now a writing tip, which is kind of related to what I've been talking about and is to do with enthusiasm.
About two and a half years ago, I took a long trip with a friend and one of the subjects we discussed was my frustration at not getting my novels taken on by publishers, even those who'd published me in the past. My friend, who'd built up a very successful coaching business from scratch at a fairly advanced age, urged me to be more outgoing: network, he said, find a mentor, join groups. I was very resistant to this, believing that all that counts is what you write.
But later, I gradually and at first reluctantly thought he might just have a point. So I joined some groups; as I mentioned last time, I went to Odyssey and Milford; I chaired panels at fantasy conventions; did a lot more editing/mentoring. Sometimes, I came away wondering why I'd done it - because I couldn't see the direct benefit, or thought I hadn't received the benefit I'd expected. But here's the thing: all those activities pumped my enthusiasm, which in turn now affects the way I approach editors and agents. For instance, I put a proposal to an agent a couple of weeks back, in which I talked a lot about all the stuff I'm involved with in SF, including this podcast, and she came back the very next day to say, YES YES YES - and I don't think she was washing her hair at the time with that over-excitable organic shampoo. Now, I don't know what will come of that proposal, but it doesn't matter: the main thing is I've seen how important enthusiasm is. And guess what? Enthusiasm also back-flows into one's writing, and when you think about it, is the most important element of all in making it attractive.
Showing a story treats readers with respect, providing space for them to infer the characters; basically it includes the reader - Telling doesn't: it keeps the reader at arm's length.
Showing reflects the ambiguities and uncertainties of life; Telling removes them all which is why characters in blockbusters tend to behave so predictably.
Just as being an eccentric is much harder than telling people you're one, learning to Show rather than Tell means you have to completely change your mental approach to the way you write.
Writing tip on output and a bit more on enthusiasm:
Here are two contrasting examples. Jay Lake the science fiction writer was talking recently about how he has to write in one-to-two hour patches but in that time will produce 5,000 words, and typically he produces around 200k words - easily enough for a novel - in 35-40 days.
A children's author I know - one book published so far to excellent critical acclaim - recently talked about how he has a job which only takes up three days of the week; in other words he has 4 clear writing days and seven evenings if he so chooses. He said he was setting himself a target of 2,000 words per week. So, let's say he can manage 40 hours in a week, that's around 50 words per hour, compared with around 2 to 3 thousand for Jay Lake. Lake also has a child, while the children's author doesn't. It's no great surprise to me that this author is also worried about working on his second novel not going too well.
Now, I know all the arguments against simply sitting in the seat and writing. I've used them myself. But then my partner was never fooled by my explanation that I was not having a 'kip' whenever she found me stretched out on the study floor but allowing my creative mind the time and space it needs to produce something more original than would appear if I simply bashed out the words. And I'm not really convinced, either. The fact is, the process of writing generates enthusiasm which in turn gives the writing integrity. So what if half of what Jay Lake writes has to be discarded eventually, he's still got 100,000 words of good stuff down in under a month.
We all have this sly self that lives inside us and is incredibly clever at nudging us away from the writing desk. It knows our weaknesses and only has to whisper the suggestion that the ironing needs doing, or how great it would be to cook a proper meal tonight instead of making do with a sandwich - hey, writers have the cleanest and best-stocked larders of anyone - and of course, it's excellent at convincing us that we'd have so much more energy to write with if we just watched the second half of the Chelsea game first; well, better make that the first half, after all, you've paid for Sky Sports, haven't you; might as well get your money's worth.
What works for me is simple but somewhat unimaginative. I just sit in the chair and keep myself there by saying as often as I need to, 'Just keep writing; just keep writing'; and sometimes I add: 'Come on, you can do it; just keep writing'.
How do you retain enthusiasm when your stuff is getting rejected all the time? Keep improving your writing; keep sending it out; keep yourself informed; join in with other writers - workshops, conventions, online critique groups. And above all, remember that success is not one big publishing deal that changes your life forever - the media love that stuff but it's incredibly rare. Success is little movements forward in this area, then that, and one over there until bit by bit you find you're heading up the path you always wanted to be on, which has no end, just a lot of learning and enthusiasm.