Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Rules: Show, Don't Tell

Wow this guy's descriptions are amazing!
One of the most commonly listed rules of writing is "show, don't tell."  A classic quote along these lines is from Anton Chekov, who said "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."   In another place, C.S. Lewis wrote:
Instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please, will you do my job for me?"
This is a crossover to the "adjectives" rule, which is for another post, of course.  But the point is simple: if you have something to show in a story, do so, instead of stating it in bald terms or using lots of adjectives.

This is a good basic rule for writers to keep in mind.  It is too easy to simply write "the monster was ugly" and leave it up to the reader, instead of writing "the creature's jaws were mangled, with teeth jagged and long in all directions like his face had been crushed.  Each jaw unhinged in the middle, sideways, revealing writhing maggot-like organs within the mouth that reached and beckoned at Joan Travers as she backed away, furiously reloading her revolver."

The first presumes ugliness, the second demonstrates it.  Instead of telling the reader that something is a certain way, reveal it in a manner that the reader comes to that conclusion themselves.  Of course, there are exceptions.  H.P. Lovecraft regularly wrote about creatures that were indescribable to humanity, in colors that defied the rainbow, with shapes so outside human experience and understanding that they drove observers insane. There's only so much you can do to describe that, so you have to use extraordinary adjectives to attempt an image of the thing.But overall its a good rule.

However, this rule is often misunderstood.  While the "Show, Don't Tell" (SDT) rule is applicable to description, it is primarily meant to deal with larger issues of character.  For example, you cannot describe a Nazi interrogation chamber sufficiently horrific until the reader understands who and what the Nazis were about, what the consequences of being captured were, and how that interrogation was going to end up.  Just describing the room creatively and brilliantly will not suffice; in the end, its a box with people in it.

SDT is abused when someone merely insists that a character is "brilliant" or "charismatic" but does nothing to actually demonstrate this to be the case.  I can't even count the number of movies I've seen where the female lead is supposed to be irresistibly lovable, when she's actually very bland and uninteresting - or even unpleasantly selfish - but merely beautiful.  Why did the hero fall so hard for this girl, other than that she has a nice face and huge tracts of land?

When you insist upon something in a story that the story does not then support or reveal, you've violated STD.  This rule isn't just about moonlight, its about story.  You cannot pull characters in for an immersive tale if what you claim isn't supported by the story at large.  In this sense, showing is not so much descriptive or revealing an image as it is creating a scene or a character.  Make your lovable heroine more than just a pretty face.  Don't just have people say "boy they're brave" about your main character, show them being brave..


“Storytellers don't show, they tell. I'm sticking with that.”
-Ashly Lorenzana

However, there's another side to this.  The problem is, people are so familiar with the rule, they use it places where it doesn't necessarily apply.  Writing is a matter of using language.  We as authors are not drawing pictures, we're telling stories.  So you can take the SDT rule too far, which is another rookie mistake.  For example, is this showing or telling?
The latch was old and slightly dusty, it seemed no one had opened this door for some time. It was also locked. This, at least, was more along my line of work. First I pulled a little pouch of waxed paper from my waist and dabbed fat from it on the hinges. Squeaking hinges are a thief’s nightmare, they sound like screams of hell and you’re sure everyone in the city has heard the sound when you’re working. In truth people usually don’t hear much when they are asleep, but it’s best to be sure. And I wasn’t sure how soundly the bodies around me were sleeping. I worked the fat into the hinges with care, taking my time.
We have a thief doing things, describing what he's doing: he's telling you the actions.  But at the same time, he's creating a picture of what he's doing through his description.  Some might call this "telling instead of showing" because it is narrative.  Except this is what it would look like if someone violated STD:
I was worried about noise, so I lubricated the hinges.
The key here is not using words or narration, its creating the image and telling the story so that readers understand and are drawn into the story instead of simply being lectured.  Showing is not a lack of narration of dialog, you can show what someone is like using only their words.  Consider these two examples:
Bob was an arrogant, unlikable man.
OK, you insist upon it, but is he?
"I can't begin to imagine what it is like to have such a speck for a brain," Bob said.  "How do you people even make it through the day not having the mental capacity to even begin to understand my actions?"
Now he's an egotistical jerk.  You don't have to even be told it, you know because of his own dialog.  And you can violate this rule by showing what you ought to be telling, as well.  There are some basic things a story is always supposed to be about, a focus that you need to keep in mind.  Anything that goes outside this you should seriously consider cutting.  Your job is to tell the story, not to describe every single thing in ornate, rococo fullness with rich, florid language.

Say your characters go to a restaurant.  The purpose of this scene is to place them in a specific location and time (set the scene), and to develop their relationship (develop characters), moving the plot toward its conclusion (moving the story along).  We don't need to know what the hostess is wearing or how her hair is parted.  We don't need to see the chef cook their food.  We don't need to "watch" the waiter carry the food out to their table.
They ordered, and within ten minutes the waiter returned with the fries and two Caesar salads.
That's enough, unless there is something specific about the food or waiter that is used to serve the three tasks above (set the scene, develop the characters, or move the story along).  Showing all the details here would be not just irrelevant, but slow the scene down, clutter it with meaningless words, and actually hinder the purpose of the scene.

Showing can be taken too far, to the point where it becomes a distraction, and readers become bored with the excessive description.  What's even worse is that new writers can misunderstand the point of this and begin stacking adjectives on their sentences like they're playing Madlibs and it ends up violating another rule.  That stack of pancakes gets too high.

Like all rules, this one is primarily to help people remember to stay on target, and to help new writers know what to avoid and how to learn their craft.  Like all rules, its often in the breaking them that real excitement and genius is found.  Don't get too fixated on the rule, if it gets in the way of your story.

This is part of the Rules of Writing series