Pardon me, your writer is showing
Here it Comes – Show Don’t Tell – My Take – For the most part a society that Googles everything from forgotten salad dressing ratios to what does guacamole taste like hasn’t got a clue. I looked it up for us. The takeaway?
“Show, don’t tell” should not be applied to all incidents in a story.
Why not? Because it would take forever to write. Or read. There are successful writers out there who ignore this and write and write and write. And others attributed to the same style write very little. Here we are again with a RULE that means nothing. Dial it up, dial it down, ignore it altogether. Properly applied I believe, as I do about dialogue, it all has to do with rhythm and pacing. Musicality.
The first of two approaches to “show don’t tell” involve using flowery, evocative language. Exercise: Put the reader in the stinky bathroom of a desert gas station. No, just kidding. To what end? To prove you can write about rust stains and dried turds and warped mirrors and peeling paint on cinder blocks and decades of dried urine in the grout for two and a half pages? Maybe, if it was a guy who got beat up by mobsters and left for dead in the desert and you want to put the reader’s face on that floor with him when he crawls in out of the sand. But to me that’s writing to prove you can.
The other approach is drop a few nuggets, let the reader fill in the blanks. Truth – You know we don’t see in color with our peripheral vision. Our brains fill it in for us based on context. That’s the iceberg concept. Hemingway, etc. So if I say to you “a porch twenty feet from the bayou on a humid summer night,” I might offer “pungent” and a mosquito swat that yielded blood and maybe a sweaty bandanna wipe but the rest of it is on you. Because there’s a story being told on that porch and all that flowery sense of place crap is background and there’s no reason to waste a John Williams theme on crickets and frogs and foley work. Personal opinion only. Unless of course you write like David Foster Wallace and then, by all means, watercolor it all together and knock it out of the park for us.
Narrative – Narrative is great to get from impact scene to impact scene, as above. Personally I shorten narrative to it’s extreme cutoff point. Example: Deanna stepped through the steam and the mist, boarded the train more homesick than she ever imagined possible. Done. She gets off the train and the story continues. Narrative is a great device to get some story told from point A to point B and is necessary to kick the story along without the minutia of Deanna brushing her teeth that morning and giving five pages of flashback about why she’s homesick. A decent author would have put us in her shoes chapters ago. Which brings me to –
Narrative excess – An equally wordy writerly option to show, don’t tell excess and a way to show off your research and waste a LOT of time that isn’t show, don’t tell. Unless you want to write about the texture of deciduous tree bark, like the restroom floor example above. Example: I have been reading this damn book that is both a good story and well written and a humongous PIA. I mean the main character gets up off the bed in a motel room from a conversation with a girl (not a sex scene, just dialogue furthering the story ) to go splash water on his face. We are treated to two and half pages of dense, blocks of text backstory. Which could have been easily condensed to a paragraph, or had it been me, three lines. It would have made a great ‘insert backstory video clip here’ in a movie. Maybe. And the whole damn book would have been at least 30% shorter had it been written in a linear time line. The flashbacks and backstory are worse than any Noir film. Like Timothy Leary moments. Exercise: Person sees reflection in sugar dispenser top. Now, jump out of mid dialogue getting the story told into deep reflective space for 600-800 words and then jump back into the convo with other person saying “Are you OK?” “Yeah, just thinking.” Just thinking my ass. Maybe the thought flew by but just reading it my coffee got cold and I’m still in a red vinyl booth in a diner no further along than I was three pages ago.
I don’t call the rules into question or try to sell them or even justify how to avoid them. All I want is for everyone to see that style is everything, and to write like we mean it. Regardless of what it is or where you find your voice. Tell your story. To the best of your ability. Every time. Turn it up. Or turn it off. Remember, when your fluffy fill up space writer is showing…
And neither should we. Get to the red ‘Vette of your story. Leave the Volvo in the dust.