Thursday 22 May 2014

Show and Tell

Approximately the most common, and the least useful, advice given to young writers is “show, don’t tell.” To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this advice in itself – in fact it’s good advice – but it’s easily said and rarely given much in the way of explanation.

“Show the reader what’s happening, don’t tell them,” people would helpfully, and somewhat smugly, explain to me. 

I see. Thanks.

To try to figure out what they meant I Googled the answer, and was met by a barrage of blog posts that thought they’d nailed it (a bit like the one I’m writing now). A significant proportion of these, as far as I could tell, were shooting in the wrong direction.

Here’s a typical example:

The author of the post tells us the answer is simple: be more specific!

This is nonsense – it’s possible to be incredibly, soul-crushingly specific while still telling the reader what is happening. Here’s an example I just threw together:

Jack’s shoes had once been shiny. Now they were scuffed in places, worn to the grey of uncared-for leather, and smeared with dirt along the edges. The soles were smooth and rounded at the back from the many miles of rough pavements he had dashed along, rushing from one appointment to the next. Jack was far too disorganised – and far too busy – to keep his shoes clean and shiny.

The reader drowns in a sea of specificity, one adjective trooping obediently after the other. She is left to figure nothing out – told every detail. The writer is showing off, is wasting time on exposition when the story could be moving forward, and crucially is not trusting the reader to be able to figure out the nuances herself.

And that, there, is the key. Let’s try again.

One could tell a lot from the state of a man’s shoes, Stephanie thought to herself. That young man, for instance, who had just rushed in a full hour and twenty-three minutes late for his interview, had on the most battered pair of brogues she had ever seen. 
“Can I help you?” she said, raising one slender eyebrow.

I’m labouring the point a little clumsily, but hopefully the difference is clear. The reader can fill in the implications of the state of Jack’s brogues herself, and she has already inferred quite a bit about his character (and Stephanie’s), without being force-fed the details by the writer. Readers are clever. Let them use their brains. Show them.

For a far better explanation than I can give, take this, from Stephen King’s brilliant memoir-cum-handbook On Writing:

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

 Or, better yet, Chekhov:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

And possibly my favourite (Chekhov again):

“I don’t understand anything about the ballet; all I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.”

What I’m trying to say really is this: don’t read blog posts about showing and telling.

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