Vox Newman

Showing vs Telling | March 15, 2011

There’s a great amount of talk in the writing community in regards to prose (especially in fiction) and this talk usually begins with the idea of ‘showing vs telling’.  The trouble is, as far as I can tell, it seems to be a general idea with few specifics offered as to how to achieve this.  When I was younger I read quite a few books on the subject and in the last decade there’ve been a plethora more (some now in podcast form).

But, what I have yet to encounter is a guide that actually explains the strategy necessary to achieve this.  It’s almost as if a writer is on a quest to find the answer for themselves.  It’s a trial and they’re expected to ‘feel it out’.  I’d like to think I’m in the know on this idea, as when I go back and read what I’ve written in the last decade, for the most part I’ve avoided many of the mistakes I’ve seen in other writing and I’ve managed to eradicate the mistakes I myself used to make.  That’s certainly not to say that my writing is perfect, but there’s no such thing as perfect when discussing human creativity, just bad, good enough or great etc.  I’d like to imagine I’ve avoided bad, terrible, atrocious etc.

When I think about how I might have accomplished this, I’m a little surprised.  I say this because I’d usually argue against the idea of reading to learn how to write.  You’ve likely heard the argument: to become a good writer, you need to read well, read widely, read a lot, never stop reading blah blah blahBupkus.  I hate this idea.  When confronted with it I generally respond ‘No, reading more makes you a good reader.  Writing more makes you a good writer.’ And then I’ll throw in an analogy such as ‘The runner who won the Olympic gold didn’t get there by watching people run, they got there by spending their days running.’

I’ll admit that at some point this runner will have watched other people run, say, while they’re preparing for their own race or before hand to compare the competition; but I don’t mean to say it’s completely unnecessary, I mean instead, that it’s an inefficient use of their time.  To express this I’ll apply some imaginary numbers; these numbers are arbitrary and meant solely to conduct my meaning rather than to be taken as fact (I consider them ‘truthy’ but if you want cold hard numbers, go ahead and research it): The runner spends 1000 hours running and manages to shave 30 seconds off the time it takes them to finish a race, whereas if they spent 1000 hours watching videos of other runners, they might be lucky to shave only 1 or 2 seconds off their time and this was probably accomplished in the first hour of video-watching.  This is what I mean by inefficient and I think the principle can be analogous to using reading as a method to improve your writing.

But, as I said, for ‘showing vs telling’ I may suspend this notion (at least temporarily) because I wonder if I myself improved my own writing in regards to this because I read something.  What did I read?  Terrible writing.  I’ve actually read a lot of that.  The latest one was ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and before that there were the first two books in the Twilight series.

As an aside I can hear you gasp at the idea that I’d spent my time reading Stephenie Meyer (oh, and this is the first time I typed her name: I find it entirely appropriate that her name was spelled wrong at birth) but rest assured I had very no good reasons: I read the first book because I saw a beautiful girl reading it and she leant it to me and I read the second because it was in the bathroom.

To get back to the point: I’ve read some pretty terrible writing in my life.  And I’ve also lucked out and read some really amazing writing.  In between I’ve read what one of my English teachers called ‘Mind Candy’ which is writing that’s either bad or good (usually middling) but it doesn’t matter because it’s either super-fun to read or it lets you wind down your mind from more weighty matters.

What I’d like to focus on then is how the things that I’ve read may have helped me early on to distinguish between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ and how I’ve become better at balancing the two when I write.  Terrible writing is terrible for a variety of reasons and one of the ways you’ll notice that you’re reading something terrible is that there will almost exclusively be more exposition (‘telling’) than action/reaction/description/dialogue (anon, i.e. ‘showing’).

Additionally, in a terrible piece of writing, this will be common:

 

“Oh I can’t imagine how bad you feel,” Winifred exclaimed as she thought of how sad her friend was and imagined what it must be like to grow up with such a father as Mr. Prentice.  She was crying now too as she herself had seen all too many men bowed low by illnesses such as cancer.  “After all, I remember your father to be such a good man, much like the father I never had.”

Upon hearing this, Anise wailed anew and thought of how her father used to bring home a new dress for her each month when she was a little girl.  The two women held on to each other and their collective thoughts BLAH BLAH BLAH

 

But in a good piece of writing you’re more likely to find this:

 

“Wow, I can’t imagine it.”  Winifred shook her head.  “Poor Mr. Prentice.”

Anise nodded, dabbed the corner of one eye with a cleanex and sniffled.

Winifred reached out, drawing her childhood friend into her and the two of them became entwined.  “Was it at least peaceful for him in the end?  I hope so.  I’ve seen jaundiced men racked with pain in the cancer ward: your gentle father deserved to have a peaceful end.”

“He was –”  Anise, her voice husky, stopped as she seemed to choke after gulping.  “I still have all the dresses he bought me.”  She looked over her shoulder.  “In a cabinet somewhere.  Oh Winifred!”  She clutched tighter to her friend and the two, with mascara streaming down their lovely faces, shuddered in one another’s arms.

 

So, it would have been less likely that I would have been able to distinguish between the two without seeing concrete examples of how to and not to go about writing.  Meaning that, if I hadn’t seen how badly ‘telling’ could be done and compared that to how elegant ‘showing’ is achieved, then it might have taken longer for me to work this out on my own.  Of course, if I had a great writing mentor, the problem likely would have been eradicated much more efficiently, but who’s got one of those in their pocket?  Mine’s dead.

And that’s what I’ve been getting at.  Sort of.  Sorry if it took me a while to propose a solution: what you need to do is read through an example of bad writing and then do the same with good writing.  One book of each should suffice (any more and you’re using your time inefficiently again).  I suggest Clive Custler, Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer as examples of bad writing and for good writing go with Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood or Yukio Mishima.  Mishima would be my personal recommendation as he’s (and to some extent his various English translators are too, as I can’t read a lick of Japanese) the dead mentor I reference.  I am of the opinion that Humanity hasn’t produced a better writer of fiction novels than he.

In addition, if you think the comparison might be helped by reading a middling example, go with Haruki Murakami or Douglas Coupland.

The above advice is not meant as a guide to grammar, plot or themes, but to improve general narrative.  I think, in fact, that plot and theme might be over-rated (how many of you could honestly say that your life had a plot, subplots, or themes that neatly wrapped themselves up, and if so, where did your story ‘end’?), so more on that in the future.

But, I’m of the opinion that if you write like this (i.e. more ‘showing’ less ‘telling’) then your characters will feel more like real people, less like lecturers and, therefore, the scenes that progress around these characters lives will start to take on a life of their own as the individual aspirations of said characters clash with each other and/or the world (i.e. conflict).  When that happens, a plot of sorts will develop into a story and you should have to re-write your outline.

The way I envision it, a piece of good writing should be more like an impressionist painting and less like photo-realism.  Maybe it’s because I started out with poetry and my poetry was always focused on imagery or compressed metaphor.

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