Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Show, don't tell - you've heard it all before but what does it mean?

If you've ever been on a creative writing course, or read books on how to edit, you'll have been exhorted at some point to 'show, don't tell'.  In other words, try and make your 'scenes' come to life.
            Look at this example:

Cherie was fuming, too wound up to get on with making dinner. She paced up and down the little sitting room. How dare he! And with that slut, Marcia, who'd been round half the street. Well, she'd show him she wasn't one to be taken lightly. Wait till he got home.
            She looked wildly round her. On the sideboard was an ugly bronze statuette that her grandma had given her. She pictured it buried deep in Kenny’s skull.
            When he came through the door he was as bright and cheerful as usual. Gave her a smacking kiss and asked what they were going to eat. She told him to sit down, that it wouldn't be long. She wondered how she was going to approach it, what the bastard would say. In the end she just came out with it. Told him straight she knew what he'd been up to with Marcia. But he just laughed. Said Marcia had come on to him, that there was nothing in it.
            Enraged, she grabbed the statuette and smashed it down on the back of his head. She saw the amazement on his face, and his mouth open to protest, but her rage took over. All she could see was the infamous red mist, and she brought the ornament down on his head again and again until he lay still.

Now the above gives you all the information you need. It's not badly written and the information contained in the piece is clear. It gives us the details we need and it does it succinctly. In fact, if you read 19thC novelists such as George Eliot, Jane Austen or Henry James then you'll find huge swathes of text written just like this, (the writing will no doubt be of a better quality – it will certainly be more long-winded) and this is how fiction was written then. To be honest, I rather enjoy it. If it's done well it engages the intellect and draws the reader into the author's thoughts very effectively.

Look at this passage from George Eliot's Middlemarch.
Her thought was not veined by any solemnity or pathos about the old man on the bed: such sentiments are easier to affect than to feel about an aged creature whose life is not visibly anything but a remnant of vices. She had always seen the most disagreeable side of Mr. Featherstone: he was not proud of her and she was only useful to him. To be anxious about a soul that is always snapping at you must be left to the saints of the earth, and Mary was not one of them.'

But today's readers expect a greater immediacy than that. They would expect Mary's feelings to be shown, rather just be told about them. In fact on the whole, today's readers want to be much more emotionally engaged. This is true of all fiction, novels and short stories included, but it is particularly true if you want to write genre fiction, such as crime, romantic fiction, spy thrillers or historical romances.

Have a look at the first extract rewritten to show, rather than tell, what happened between Cherie and Kenny. (I'm not going to try and rewrite George Eliot!)

Cherie fumed. Her breath came in short gasps and she could hear her heart beating.
            'That cheating bastard!' she said to herself. 'And with that slut, Marcia. How could he? What the hell has she got that I haven't?'
            She tried to steady her breathing, which was coming in short, sharp pants. She debated with herself how she was going to bring it up, shove it in his face. With one eye she took in the bronze statuette on the sideboard.
            'Right,' she said. 'Let's see what you've got to say for yourself. Let's see how you feel with that buried in your skull.'
            She heard his footsteps in the hall before he opened the door.
            'Hiya darlin',' he said. 'Good day?'
            'Oh, not bad, not bad.'
            'Dinner ready?'
            'Not yet. Won't be long.'
            He looked at her. 'Something wrong? Your face looks a bit blotchy. You sickening for something?'
            He stood up and put his hands on her shoulders. 'Keep still for a minute, will you. Stop pacing up and down. What the hell's got into you?'
            She looked back at him, her eyes like coals. 'Just one word. Marcia.'
            He stared, and his grip on her shoulder tightened.
            'What the hell are you…?' he began, but then started to laugh. He let go her shoulders and threw himself down into the chair.
            'So you heard. So what interfering old biddy let you in on that?'
            'Doesn't matter. What matters is, why?'
            'Why d'you think?'
            'How could you?'
            'Oh, give over. She was all over me like a rash. She wanted it. I just obliged. Didn't mean anything.'
            He looked up at her, offered his hand. 'Come on, Cher. It's not like you haven't been round the block yourself.'
            She reached out her hand to him as if in forgiveness, but with her other hand she grabbed the statuette and swung it down hard. Blood sprang to his forehead from the gash she'd made.
'For God's sake, Cher,' he managed. 'Be careful.'
            As she swung the ornament again and again she said between gritted teeth: 'And don't call me Cher.'

This time the writer has explored the action and dramatised the incident so that it appears like a scene in a play, showing events as they are actually happening, thus carrying the reader along. The first two extracts are simply recorded events (the first one) or recorded thoughts (the second).

Of course there are times when 'telling' is actually the best vehicle for getting something across. The reader would be exhausted if every page contained drama and conflict, and the writer needs to work at varying the pace as well as trying to put events across dramatically.  But there are other mechanisms, which when done sparingly, can also ensure we are shown rather than told. In fact here is another passage from Middlemarch that uses another technique, that of the internal monologue.

Lydgate, in fact, was already conscious of being fascinated by a woman strikingly different from Miss Brooke; he did not in the least suppose that he had lost his balance, but he had said of that woman, 'she is grace itself; she is perfectly lovely and accomplished.' Plain women he regarded as he did the other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy and investigated by science.

In my own novel, Hangman's Wood, I use this technique to reveal both the fate of one of the abductees and the state of mind of one of the perpetrators without taking the reader through the incident.

He enjoyed the pleading most, he decided.  That's when you really felt their terror, when you got up close. She'd begged and cried so much he'd actually got bored. Eventually he'd had to stop her babbling, stop her with a good hard slap to her fat, white face. That had put some colour in her cheek. He had hated her whiteness, thought she looked like undercooked pastry.
It had been easy, he chuckled to himself, getting her into her car and then driving it out of the car-park. He'd checked out where the CCTV cameras were the day before and seen they didn't cover the whole of the site. And it was such a murky, drizzly afternoon, dark already by four o'clock, that no-one was going to pay much attention. Just wanted to get in their cars out of the weather. The security guy wasn't doing much, either. Keeping himself dry, Graham supposed. So it had been a matter of minutes for two nice young men to offer to help her put her heavy shopping in the boot of her car, then bundle her into the back.

The reason I chose this method was because at that point I needed to do a couple of things. I’d already described one abduction in dramatic detail, and another through various conversations after the event, so I needed to find another technique to describe this event. I also needed to think hard about the pace of the story, and in fact at this stage I wanted to slow things down a little.
So despite the instruction to ‘show, don’t tell’, it’s also important to vary the method of showing. And sometimes a bit of ‘telling’ enables the writer to vary the pace and give the reader a bit of breathing space. And pace is something I'll look at in another article.

This article was written by Pauline Rendall (Paula K. Randall), and is a version of an article previously published in Ezine magazine. Paula K. Randall

1 comment:

  1. Some interesting observations here. I agree that the whole notion of 'show' not 'tell' is more complicated than it might appear. Not all thought processes can be 'enacted' in some way, nor should they necessarily be dramatised. The revelation of a character's thoughts and feelings can be indicated very effectively by stylistic devices that indicate the 'voice' of the character, as in the Lydgate passage and the one from 'Hangman's Wood'. One could argue that the reader is being 'shown' the inner workings of a character's mind.