Showing

If I say, "He was a dangerous person, a walking time bomb," are you gripped by the character? You may be interested or even a little hooked since a walking time bomb promises action and excitement, but you're not there yet.

See how the following affects you:

He was going to kill somebody. Maybe kill himself before it was over. His six-shot Smith and Wesson lay in the glove compartment. She had a six-inch, ventilated, blue steel barrel, a tight coil hammer that bit into your thumb when you drew it back, and one of those polished crescent triggers, cool to the touch. She was fully loaded, so smooth and trim he got a hard-on thinking about her.

That gives you an experience rather than a general idea of the character. The first example tells you about the character in general terms. This one gives you the experience of him by means of personal specifics, shows you who he is, shows him acting in the immediate moment. The first statement is in the language of the author—from the outside. The second is in the language of the character—from the inside. The first we call telling. The second we call showing. An unfortunate choice of terms in some ways, since we talk about storytelling, being a good storyteller. Then, when you get into the actual craft, we go on to make this distinction between telling and showing in which telling is bad and showing is good. "Show, don't tell" is the old writing rule. And rightly so, since showing is the most fundamental of all writing techniques. Showing is to story as heat is to cooking.

The author says, "He was an awful person." The reader says, "Show me." You have to prove it because saying it doesn't make it so. You must create the experience. You must make it happen because the reader will take your word for nothing. But if you show the actual experience, happening here and now, word for word, right before our eyes, the reader will be there, living it through the character.

If I went on to tell you our dangerous time bomb character was angry, narrow-minded, and cruel, it wouldn't do much to you. You wouldn't experience much more about him. But if I showed him acting angry, narrow-minded, and cruel, it would be another story. See how the following affects you:

He could feel the heat coming through the floorboard as he pressed the pedal of the piece-of-shit Chevy he'd stole. He was on a two-lane, ass-backwards, redneck road somewhere in the Florida Panhandle. It didn't matter. It could be Texas, Virginia, or Arizona. It was all the same. Hauling his broken ass in this can of Sterno, getting to where he needed to go, which was any fleabag motel that would take him. The kind of run-down dump on the side of this dry lick road where some fat dumpling of a toothless daughter of her own brother/father snickers when you tell her you need a room and she thinks you want it to get laid or do something perverted to yourself.

Maybe he'd shoot her too.

The world's like that. You end up doing something you thought you never would. What the fuck!

The fuck was, it was hotter than an oven on Thanksgiving in this tin can with no air-conditioning. Just his goddamn luck, the first old fool he robbed outside of Jacksonville had a car that didn't have no air. Who the hell buys a car in Florida that don't have air? The stupid old fart actually tried to stop him from getting into the car. He'll see what a fool he was when he wakes up in the hospital and sees his foot looking like hamburger. He woulda shot him in the head if he knowed the son-of-a-bitch had no air.

That should have given you a feel for the character, given you the experience of him, shown you what he was about.

If I say fear, you don't experience fear. If I say, "Barbara was terrified," you don't experience Barbara's terror. But if Barbara is seven years old and is cornered in an alley by a seedy-looking man who says, "Come on little darling. We're going for a ride in my car," you might begin to feel something for her because of the situation. If she says, "Where's my mommy? I want my mommy," you start to feel her fear as she's feeling and expressing it even though the word fear isn't used. You have to give us the actions of the characters without labels or generalities. Specifics, specifics, specifics—the personal specifics of the characters and their actions (showing) are what do the job.

These are pretty clear-cut examples—all or none. The problem is, it's not always a matter of all or none. Sometimes you have a mix of telling and showing. Instead of a full scene, you give us a partial scene. A partial scene is one that gives us the setup in summary (generality) and mixes in enough dialogue and specifics to sketch it in and give us an experience. Think of it as the difference between highly realistic painting in which you can't see the brush marks, and impressionism, in which a few broad strokes give you the image. In partial scenes, you must give the reader enough (as the brushstrokes in impressionism) so that his imagination can fill in the rest. The thing to remember is that showing a little is better than telling a lot.

The showing example I gave you in chapter 3 is also a good example of partial showing. Let's look at it again. We started with the dictionary definition, the idea, of homely. "Homely, adj. Lacking in elegance or refinement. Not attractive or good-looking." That's the idea of homely. To create the experience of homely, to show it, it must be put in personal terms, a specific person's experience of homeliness. Here's the showing of it again.

"She's a homely girl. I don't know where she gets it," my six-year-old ears overhear my mother saying to my Aunt Beth. I don't know what "homely" means, but I know it's bad. I run to my room, bury my head in my pillow and cry. Eventually, I learn what homely really means. It means to be taken to the dentist for my buckteeth: "Can you make them straighter?" To the plastic surgeon for my nose: "Can you make it smaller?" It means I am dragged to walking classes, talking classes, and posture classes: "Chin up. Shoulders back. Enunciate. Smile." Homely means that everything I put in my mouth is carefully weighed, measured, and calculated beforehand so I don't take up more space than I already do. "Will she ever lose weight, Doctor?" my mother asks. "She's just a big girl," says Doctor Chen. Homely means that you see a look of disdain on the face of a mother who wishes her daughter could be a beauty queen. You see that look every day of your life.

-Elizabeth Brown

This paragraph skips a lot. It's an overview, a summary, of many years of the daughter's life with this mother. It doesn't give us everything, but it's personal and specific enough to give us an experience, to reach the heart, which is something the dictionary definition could never do. This paragraph was the lead into a scene of the daughter going home as an adult to visit this mother and still feeling intimidated and frightened by her. It was an excellent way to give us a feel for who's who and what's what as we are led into a painful and dramatic scene.

Here's another example:

He lay in bed at night, his pillow over his head, trying not to hear his parents fighting;— the banging and hitting. "You bitch, you lousy bitch," his father said. The sound of a slap, a thump, a kitchen chair skidding across the floor. "Oh, why? Why do you do this to me?" his father howled.

You get the picture pretty well, but you don't get the father coming through the door and the kid's thoughts, his running for cover in his room, the parent's conversation that led up to the violence, or how the fight finally ended. You don't get a lot, but if it's done well, you get enough—enough to stick with it. You can do it once in a while, but if you do it too much, you're leaving too much out to hold the reader.

The more you tell, generalize, the more you cut the reader out of the experience and yourself too, for that matter, since it's as much about you and your having the experience as it is about the reader having it later. The best way to give the reader an experience is to make sure you have one first.

Showing takes place in real time, the pace of reality. Telling generalizes, compresses, skips. No one wants part of a big experience left out—no one wants to have sex and skip the orgasm, or have soup and salad, skip the entree, and go on to dessert. Now, if it's a lousy meal, you might want to skip the entree, and if it's a weak part of your story, you might be tempted to skip over it.

If it was a lousy meal, then why tell us about the soup, salad, dessert, and coffee? Well, maybe they were great. Telling can be used to get through some sluggish material, which is fine, if you do it rarely. My personal advice is to go back and prepare an entree worth eating. Make all of your story worth showing. Now, that may be unrealistic, especially if, after repeated attempts, you can't make it work. Quick vivid telling can be better than long sluggish showing if you don't do it often. Telling should be a last resort.

Another way to summarize (tell) is flashback, a memory of the experience that would naturally be fragmented. When you need to cover a lot of material in a short space. Also, you might do it if you don't feel you have the skill to do the whole job. Still, the issue is, Could you do better with showing? Try to show it with pieces of the experience that will suggest the whole.

Whatever the reason, just remember: telling is risky. Ideally, you want to create scenes worth doing in full, scenes that have the drama to justify giving us all the gory details. Even if you're going to do a partial scene, I would recommend, especially when you're new to writing, doing the full scene and trying to find enough drama to make it work, then cutting it down into summary/telling if you need to. That way, you're practicing your craft and improving your skill and not shying away from the task. All the big, dramatic episodes in a story should be done in full scene—should be dramatic enough to be worth doing in full scene.

So, what about the writers who get away with telling? I'm talking about authors like Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann, etc. In order to get away with it, your ideas have to be striking, vivid, provocative, or brilliant in their own right. That's not to say the reader won't overlook some telling if the rest of what he gets is strong, which means the question you should always ask is: Does the story work because of or in spite of the telling? Readers will plow through a lot if they are rewarded for it, but don't count on it.

Tolstoy said, "All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion." A famous line. It's arresting and thought-provoking. It stands on its own. And it's telling. It doesn't give us the experience of a single family, happy, unhappy, or otherwise.

Fitzgerald entered into one of his stories when a young boy who had agonized about being an outsider had just been made to feel accepted.

It isn't given for us to know those rare moments when people are wide open and the lightest touch can wither or heal. A moment too late and we can never reach them any more in this world. They will not be cured by our most efficacious drugs or slain with our sharpest swords.

These words are not the boy's experience, but a comment by the author on not only what was happening at that moment but on the nature of life itself, and it made the moment even more sensitive and touching.

That Fitzgerald passage is one of my personal favorites. But then you might hate it. And that's the problem with telling. It's ideas. Ideas are much harder to sell than experience. If they strike us the wrong way, we resist. Experience (showing) is what we live and feel. It touches our heart before we have time to judge. To deny it is to deny our own hearts.

Deeply held ideas come from a meaningful experience, usually painful. We learn not by being told about life, but through living it.

Life is showing. Ideas change us only if they relate to our life. The power is in the experience (showing).

In terms of writing, the place where you will most often slip into telling (usually without realizing) is emotion. For example, "His anger turned to guilt," might come out of you. Can you see it? Can you feel it? Anger to guilt? How does that work? How it works is one of the most difficult problems in writing—getting feelings into words. It might go like this:

Jesus Christ, he wrecked the truck, OK. It was his fault. He admitted it. Why were they still on his back? Rotten bastards couldn't let go. What the hell did they want, blood? Everybody screwed up. Nobody was perfect. He told them everything they wanted to know. Except about the drinking. He couldn't tell that. If they ever found out. Damn, that was stupid.

Damn! Why the hell did he start having beers for lunch? He knew better. He'd promised himself never again. He was the rotten bastard, not them. Rotten worthless bastard. They were right.

You can lapse into telling with anything and everything, even description. "It was a frightening storm." "It was a dangerous-looking slope." "He had a disgusting face." There is no way to avoid it. And it's perfectly all right in early drafts when you're working to get the basic story down. In fact, if you have a sense of what you need to do, but you're not up to it, telling is your shorthand that lets you put something on the page so that you can move forward and not get bogged down. You do multiple drafts. One time you're good at one thing, another time at something else. Bit by bit, you get it all up to where it needs to be. That's the way of all writers.

You could practice showing with the three examples in the above paragraph. Here's a scene of telling that you could show also.

By the time Ed got to work, he was so freaked out about his wife asking him for a divorce that morning, he couldn't keep his mind on what he was doing. He kept thinking about going through a divorce and what it would be like, how he would get through it and if he could go on alone. He was so preoccupied he couldn't focus. Eventually, his boss called him in and asked what the problem was.

If you don't want to do that, here are some more exercises to choose from. Remember, if you have something that you want to go back to from previous writing, do that. If you're doing the full-story exercise, you'll be doing the next part.

EXERCISES

FULL STORY, PART FOUR:

This is the aftermath of the last scene, just as there was one after the first discovery. The character is wrestling with the newly revealed and more troubling facts, trying to make sense of them in the same way. If, by chance, you had the character be reassured in the last scene, then new, more incriminating discoveries need to be made in this scene. The character will be imagining the worst, planning for it, and hoping for the best. (He or she could consider spying on the husband, getting a private detective, help from a friend, murder, suicide, etc.)

Here are some full-scene exercises. They can be turned into full stories if they take off for you. Remember the point, always, is to reveal as much of the characters and their relationship as you can.

A family fight over a missing object.

Two people (friends, lovers, parent/child) fighting over the meaning of a word. Eventually they look it up in the dictionary and discover that they're both wrong. They then begin arguing over who was more right.

SECOND FULL STORY, PART ONE:

To bed or not to bed. A character is having dinner with someone she's been out with twice before and is trying to decide if she should go to bed with him or not. She wants to make the right decision but fears she might do the wrong thing and ruin the relationship (obstacle). She's struggling with the question (action) by weighing things in her mind, by observing how he is acting toward her tonight and how he responds to her indirect, but probing, questions. This can be a little story in which the resolution is the decision to bed or not to bed. It's about making such a decision, and the goal, as always, is to reveal as much about the characters as possible.

Here's a second full story you can do if you want. It's in several parts. You'll get another part at the end of the next few chapters.

A character is waiting for his date. She's always late. Tonight she's especially late. He is agonizing over why she does it, why he puts up with it, what he can do, and what he's done to try to change her, etc. This story is also going to be about self-deception. In his thoughts, you need to show how he's possibly distorting things, how he's excessive, how he might be a problem also. He decides to pretend he's breaking up with her to teach her a lesson. He imagines the scene, how she'll beg and plead and how he'll let her stew before taking her back.

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