Saturday, January 20, 2018


‘Show, don’t tell’ goes the oft-repeated writing advice. It would be good advice, I suppose, if it actually meant much of anything. Writing is telling, after all — storytelling. Movies show things.

What we are talking about, I would say, are two separate facets of writing: imagery and action. The first of these, imagery, is what one is likely to think of when we speak of ‘showing.’ Modern writing is rather big on the image, much more so than that of an earlier day, and the concrete image has become, perhaps, over-emphasized. This is true not only in fiction but also poetry (and song writing).

There can be a tendency to include too much concrete imagery in the attempt to make things more ‘real’ to the readers, to immerse them in the setting. Sometimes, it has the opposite effect — it pulls them away from the narrative, distracts from the story itself. It is a fine line and one which one learns to draw only from experience. I know I put in too little imagery in some of my early work; that was at least partly due to coming from a nonfiction background where one needed to impart information concisely.

As in poetry, a balance is necessary. Too much imagery overwhelms the reader and the plot; too little makes the writing flat and boring. I would suggest reading critically to see how this plays out in the work of other writers. Do they go too far one way or the other? Does the imagery they include actually have any reason to be there or is it nothing more than the author’s self-indulgence? Chekhov’s advice about showing the glint of moonlight on broken glass is all very well, if there is a reason for the glass to be broken.

Then there is action. To me, this is the more important — and more difficult — part of showing. The goal is to provide exposition through things happening, rather than static description. Don’t simply say the flowers are blooming, no matter how well one might describe them, no matter how many concrete details one might be able to throw in. Rather, describe a character’s reaction to them, how he or she notes their scent, their colors, what memories or thoughts they might bring up. Make it personal. Reveal things through interaction rather than observation.

This applies especially to characters. Let them show us who they are through their actions. That makes them more real than paragraphs of description every could. Think of how Becky Sharp was introduced in 'Vanity Fair.' The things she does in those first few pages of the novel draw a far better picture of her than mere description might.

Again, anything can be overdone. Sometimes straight description is fine, noting something and then getting on with the story. Indeed, the bulk of ones narrative might go that way, with imagery and action thrown in as the occasional accent. Too much of either can fatigue the reader. As for that matter, can too little. Change it up. Find the balance that works for you (and, of course, for your audience).

Find the balance that serves the story. Remember that the story comes first. All else serves the story, helps one tell it. Showing is a tool for telling, nothing more, so learn to use it as such, not an end in itself.

What the point might be of telling a story is, however, a completely different discussion. Some other day, perhaps.

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