Friday, June 11, 2010

Tell, don't show

A recent critique of one of my stories in my writer's group got me thinking. "Show don't tell" is a mantra of writing instructors everywhere. It's also overly simplistic. When writers choose whether to narrate or dramatize, they have to keep more than "show don't tell" in mind, because there really are places where you need to tell. For example:
  1. When it's boring. This is the first and foremost reason to tell rather than show. Sometimes what happens next in the story just isn't that interesting. Let's say your main character drives to the airport. You can say, "Roger drove to the airport." Or you can say, "Roger picked up his keys from the hutch on his way out the door. The ground was still damp from the afternoon's rain, and water clung to his shoes as he hurried through the grass. He pressed the key fob to unlock the door, listening for the audible click before pulling open the wet handle. He wiped his now damp hand on his khakis, and ducked into the car, cold droplets of water landing on his head." You get the picture. At this rate it'll take fifty pages to get to the stupid airport, and during all that time not a darn thing of any import to the story will happen. Which brings us to number 2...
  2. When it causes the story to drag. This is a subtle distinction from 1. Usually when something drags, it's because it's boring. But even when what happens is interesting to show, it can still interfere with the pace of the story, and fail to contribute meaningfully to it.
  3. When it's too long. Yeah, it doesn't seem very artistic to narrate just to keep the word count down. But don't fool yourself: word count always matters. Even when no one tells you what your word limit is, it still affects whether the story you're writing is a short story, a novella, a novel, a trilogy, an endless series... Whether someone will read it depends at least partly on how well you can manage your length.
  4. When it's tangential. Not every plot point needs to be shown in detail. Some of the side stories can be relevant to the plot, but aren't worth dramatizing. This is especially true when it's the side characters whose role would be dramatized.
  5. When giving the big picture. When you're talking about events that happen over days or weeks or even longer, or when you're describing events happening throughout a town or even a country, it's often most effective to step back and narrate. There are other techniques: vignettes, dialogue. Sometimes these work, and sometimes they're just contrived. Select the one that works best, but don't discount narration.
  6. When it's painful. All right, here's one you have to be careful with. You don't want to shy away from difficult topics. If your story needs sex and violence, then by all means put it in there. But when you describe sex and violence in detail, then it changes the nature of your story. Be careful about doing that. If it's painful for your reader, he may just put the book down. And sometimes, simply saying what happened is more effective than wallowing in the details. Subtlety and understatement can get the point across where it most matters, in the reader's imagination, far more effectively than a clumsily written scene, or even a well-written one that turns the reader's stomach.
Now hopefully that's not just my way of justifying my own story.

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