Friday, December 9, 2016

Lunacy in Writing: Stop telling a story, you storyteller

If you've tried to write a story and have let be evaluated, you've likely been hit with the chestnut of advice, “Show, don't tell”. The use of this bit of advice can become so extreme that you might need to fight back the temptation to tell the people saying this to you that, if they really want to be shown the story, they should put down the book and go watch the movie.

Now, I've no doubt there is a time and place for this advice. There are times when “Tom watched a scary movie” needs something more, like “Tom sat on the couch, his eyes wide and fixed on the television, as the movie monster stalked its next victim through the dark, fog-filled forest.”

But I also think this advice can be given wrongly, too.

One way is by insisting on needless physical descriptions when something plain and basic could work just as well. For example, take the phrase “She felt nervous”. Maybe not a great sentence, but functional, and even appropriate in some situations. But “show, don't tell” people would insist on being shown her nervousness, by having writers tell about sweating palms, twitching eyes, stammering speech, or any of the other many manifestations of nervousness a person might have.

And there will be times when such descriptions are good, too, when they actually do add something to the story. Maybe when she is nervous, she starts lisping, and that lisp plays a part in the story. Or maybe her eyes do start twitching, and that affects her vision when she gets nervous, and that's important to the story.

But to just go into such physical descriptions, without any good reason relevant to the story, simply doesn't seem smart. Why insist on mentioning sweating palms or some other nervous twitches when they are not important? If saying “She felt nervous” will tell us all we need to know, then it seems like that should be enough.

Another way gets back to the bit of sarcasm in the first paragraph, the one about those who want to be shown a story should watch the movie. That was facetious, yes, but it does point to the idea that it seems like “show, don't tell” insists that all the elements and events in the story should involve only how character's act or say, with some room for scene descriptions thrown in.

But that's not how good story writing works. Reading a story is not the same as watching one, either on TV or in a movie. Each has it's own strengths and weaknesses, and one of the big strengths of writing is that it allows the reader to get into the heads of the characters, to see their thoughts and motivations.

Again, let's take “She was nervous”. While going into physical descriptions might be helpful, there may be other information that would be good to know, too, that can't be conveyed by physical actions alone. “She stood five feet from the cliff's edge, too nervous to walk any closer, feeling dizzy even this close to the long fall”. “She knew it was silly and childish, but she still felt nervous when she saw him him walking over to her table, hoping he would remember it was her birthday”. We start to understand her a little better this way.

A few months ago, I got the CD discs for the series Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon, from Great Courses, and I think listening to that series has helped me understand better what might really be behind “show, don't tell”. It's the idea that we should be more descriptive in our writing, going into greater details, skillfully adding necessary information to our stories and writing. Landon would likely put it differently then I have here, and goes more into methods and mechanics and I would greatly recommend his lectures as being very helpful. While I'm not so sure that longer sentences are always is needed, especially some of the rambling ones Landon mentions at times, it does seem like that notion of making longer sentences to give the reader more information is pointing in the right direction.

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