Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Showing versus Telling

This article started as a series of notes I made to myself and it occurred to me to share it with others.

Showing versus Telling is tricky, something every writer struggles with. I still struggle with this one to an extent, but I have learned. I'll preface this with one fact: no matter the genre or the story, Showing is always mandatory, at least 50% of the story, minimum.

One thing I've noticed quite a bit is Telling and Showing tends to be defined differently per genre. And that can make the whole affair so, so, confusing. It can also be hard to tell the difference between Showing and Telling at times. And I'm still learning that one, as I type. No joke, it's true, still learning and the learning never ends.

On a side note, if the learning ended, I'd have nothing to do with the rest of my life! I couldn't be more grateful that it doesn't end.

Since these technical details tend to be defined differently per genre, which just adds to the confusion, this is why many authors recommend sticking with one genre only. Personally, I have the attention span of a suicidal goldfish and I'd die of boredom if I stuck with one genre only.

So, rather than giving technical definitions, which frankly doesn't really help nor make the communication clear, I'm going to give specific examples.

Telling – I have the attention span of a suicidal goldfish.

Showing – My eyes flitted rapidly over every object in the room. I blinked, then blinked again. Where was I? Oh, yes, trying to remember each object in the room. Let me start over. There's a book on the table, a coffee mug on the desk, an envelope on – wait, what was I doing? Screw it, I'd rather jump off a cliff with a bunch of lemmings.

Hehehe, that was totally random, by the way, I just made it up ;)

As you can see above, Showing results in a much higher word count and as you can also see with my totally random example, I never actually wrote I have a short attention span, poor memory, and likened it to a suicidal goldfish. Because if I did, that would be Telling, and not Showing.

I'll give another example. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, an Urban Fantasy novel. Richard Mayhew, the main character, is at his office, looking at everything on his desk, and thinking about everything he has to do. Keep in mind, this is also written in the Third Person. Richard thinks to himself he's noticed that events are cowards... they run in packs. That's a paraphrase, just to let you know. Richard tells the reader his own observation and conclusion, which is also the author's voice. Now, Neil Gaiman happens to be one of my favorite authors, so I'll never dismiss his writing. I'm just using examples.

With respect to Mister Gaiman, I'll rewrite a tad using Showing.

“The dates on the calendar blended together, each creating a glowing red circle around the numbers, like the eyes of vampiric wolves.”

Not the same, is it? It's definitely Showing, but there are two problems. One, it's not really inside Richard's head anymore and he's the one who tells the story. Two, Neverwhere is an Urban Fantasy, and this isn't true to the genre, nor is it true to the main character. It makes it a different story altogether.

In all fairness, Neil Gaiman does write quite a bit before Richard makes that comment, Showing how harried Richard is and how crazy his life can get. Like I said, just using random examples. Also, Neil Gaiman is very much a Storyteller. He writes his own commentaries and observations using the voices of his characters, and he's quite good at it.

Respecting the story and its genre above all else is most important. For my own rewrite of the above, that would be more true to a Horror or Thriller novel. It's just not respectful to the story or the genre.

I wish I could say, with conviction, when either Showing or Telling is appropriate. But I really feel this is a personal thing that's up to the author. Decide for yourself what you want to Show or Tell. If you want both, or only Showing. Sometimes, with more formulated genres and commercial fiction, there can be set rules dictated by publishers. Do your research, and decide for yourself what you want to write.

It's a brutally important skill to learn, and the sooner the author learns, the better.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
If you're not a spammer,
I'd love to hear from you.