Show Don’t Tell

Writers starting off, floundering a bit, wondering which way to go or reflecting on whether they should or should not continue will be aware there is something approaching an article of faith which is: A Writer Should Show Not Tell’

Just out of whimsey, as it were, I typed in ‘Show not Tell’ on Google and the busy little search engine proudly informed me that in 0.84 seconds it had identified 2,210,000,000 hits. Now how many of these actually refer directly to the subject of writing I did not venture to examine. If for some unaccountable reason I were to seek out each and every hit at the fanatical pace of 5 seconds per hit it would take approximately 350 years for a single person. Since this does not take into account all functions necessary to physical and mental well-being, what might happen to human culture and environment the effort seems somewhat unnecessary. A dedicated team of 1,000 might complete the task in ten years, although the attrition rate would probably be prohibitive and result in the organiser being actively disliked. Suffice it to conclude a lot of people have a lot to say on the subject.

It is only fair at this juncture to admit, yet again, there is within me a not so latent flaw which persistently inhibits any possible success; this being as my wife wearily reminds me ‘You will not be told’ . Thus if anyone even intimates to me how my writing should be done, at best they receive a politely vague comment and communication withers. Therefore there is a certain bias in this post; my apologies.

Considering the number of hits again. It cannot be denied that amongst all the comments and advice on the subject there has to be a certain diversion of view as to what constitutes ‘Show’ and what might be thought of as ‘Tell’. From this, taking into account all other Human responses to ‘Subjects’, ‘Beliefs’, ‘Outlooks’ and so forth, some of these diversions would be quite strong, if not, one fears verbally ‘violent’. Now whereas the proponents can have a thoroughly cathartic time arguing with each other and suggesting their opponent is displaying ignorance or heresy on the matter, none of this is of assistance the poor help-seeking writer, who at times, battered and buffeted by storms of advice must feel something akin to a literary sea-sickness.

One equitable solution for a writer experiencing problems in this area, would be to turn their back on the various advice books, columns, posts and writing exercises to simply read (or listen if they have a taste for audio books) thus be witness to a number of published writers at work. The choice should be very broad and should steer from the very successful who are sometimes indulged by the publishing process because their name ‘sells’. Far better to seek out those of more modest achievements who still need to rely on every bit of their art and skill to keep their audiences.

This is not a suggestion the writer should try and copy styles, more a question of absorbing the various approaches and bringing them to their own style. Because, I daresay when the various Show Don’t Tell  advisors visit books there will be levels of disagreement as to where Show or Tell started or finished at one particular part and whether either should or should not have been used.

Writing is a constant learning process, with a vast panorama of ways and means by which the writer reaches the conclusion of their work. Far better to absorb an empathy with Show Don’t Tell than to struggle to attain it by some dangerously close to mechanical process.

Keep on writing. No matter what.


Musings on Writing (Another series). One Other Benefit of Being Inside Those Characters.

There is a collection of viewpoints around the idea that a writer of fiction involving action (in its broadest sense) should not spend too long narrating the internal workings of a character particularly when they are engaged in being ‘active’ as it detracts from the flow of that particular interlude.

This is a worthy point. I have read a war fiction where one member of a gun team recounts in two long paragraphs the entire experience of an injustice done to his father while said team member is loading ammunition into the gun, as a very large tank bears down on said team. He was either a very quick talker or it was a very slow tank; the reactions of the the other team members were not recorded. I leave it up to you how you would feel about being partnered with this voluble and probably slowest loader in the army. And yet the book was commercially published and part of a successful series, in which similar diversions took place. We have entered editorial ‘Go Figure’  territory. 

That said internal dialogue or observation from a third party standpoint do play their part in building up tension, in the right context. Such as the journey to an ‘active’ scene; be it physical, verbal or emotional. Or the interlude where the writer and reader are sharing a ‘How does the character get out of this one?’ / ‘What will they do next?’ 

Overall this is a topic which could cover several posts and numerous discussions; leading off to whether ‘that action’ is necessary as it detracts from the character who has become more interesting than the original plot and other compelling  sideroads.     

To go back to the original point though. This can be a challenge when there is more than one major character and a couple of minor characters of some importance. Although angst heavy inner monologues at every turn should be avoided, when scenes involve interactions or individuals taking decisions some internal ‘splaining’ is necessary. (Which is why some books are longer than others).

At the end of the day; chapter or book there is that Other Benefit.

After all of the effort of going into motivations, clarifications, and justifications, after digging deep into presenting the character(s) and all the rest of the sweat….

You can develop a reasonably good sense of self-analysis for those times when things are just not going your way and learn to ride / surf / glide through them. (Although if you have been writing fantasy, a sense proportion about carrying large axes or double handed swords is advisable).

Learn from your characters, some of them are pretty shrewd and thoughtful folk.