Show, don’t tell

by Intermittent Rain ~ May 1st, 2013. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.


One of the first aphorisms given to beginning writers is the old ‘show, don’t tell’ claim. Like any ‘rule’ of any endeavor, especially those of creative natures, it has as its basis some helpful advice, yet you also need to understand it, and then be able to understand when to break the rule.

Afaik, this rule has its source in the tendency amongst us writers to summarize or to inform the reader, to tell. The opposite, to show, is to describe the situation as it unfolds, to provide actions and dialogue and to let the reader get the story themselves. It’s often easier to tell than to show. To show takes more words, more detail, and normally is more work for the writer. But showing is real, it puts the reader more deeply into the story, encourages them to feel and to experience the story closer to first hand. It’s like the difference between listening to a talking head in a news broadcast, versus watching a documentary of the same event. When you show, you put the reader there, as opposed to them hearing about being there.

But there are times to break this rule. In my readings about writing (if I can remember where I’ll add it, but my mind is drawing a blank), the author pointed out how Alice Munro, the master of the short story, had summarized back story for her character, had told it rather than showing it. Now you could say, Wait, this is a short story, of course you have to speed things up. Not just to keep the word count down, but if you use too large a percentage of your words for back story, the back story had better be a good chunk of the story that you want to tell.

I also re-read John Updike’s “Rabbit Is Rich” recently. This is the third of four novels, each taking place ten years apart (and the last two winning Pulitzer prizes). Because I had read the earlier novels and because I had read this novel too some twenty-five years ago, this re-visit gave me the opportunity to better notice and to better appreciate how Updike offers backstory. And there’s a lot of it, from the two previous novels as well as from the ten years preceding this novel. How did he get here, what’s the history, what’s the connection? What do we need to know about what has happened between these characters? What is the memory that comes up for him? Skeeter? Who is Skeeter? Ruth? Why is Ruth important? What happened between him and Janice that caused them to separate? What does Nelson know, what is it that he’s holding against him? There are a huge number of things that the reader needs to learn (or remember, if it comes from one of the previous novels). This is all done through telling; through quick historical summaries to put things in context, but done naturally, at points when this information is needed.

And one of my writing projects is revising a sequel, the first one I’ve ever written. Rereading “Rabbit is Rich” has been a big help. In my first draft I thought, I’m writing a sequel, I’ve got to quickly dump a concise summary of the key points of the first novel so that the uninitiated reader gets up to speed right away so I can get underway. Maybe I was too influenced by television dramas and their “Previously, on LA Law …” type of rehash at the opening of episodes. But now I’ve distributed the backstory of the first novel throughout first half the second, rather than dumping it all in the first couple of chapters. The flavor of the story changes with this procedure. Now I just have some essentials in the first two chapters, enough to get the reader through the upcoming four or six chapters, and then the rest flows out in a couple later situations, when the information would naturally be coming to mind for the main character.

And, to be honest, it feels strange. I feel as if I’m hiding something from the reader, or I forgot to include my rehash at the beginning. And the second novel feels as if it were sewn into the fabric of the first, rather than created as a sequel like Robocop II or Rocky II or Karate Kid II.

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