Thursday, October 1, 2009

Story Telling

There are a handful of common editorial phrases that come in very handy for writers. "Show. Don't Tell." is a particular favorite. An editor will often point at a lifeless bit of prose and ask the writer to "Show. Don't Tell." It's an extremely useful and important tool that means exactly what it says. Instead of a character stating I was angry (that's telling), a manuscript might read I crossed my arms and glared at him (that's showing.) It also refers to action sequences, meaning you want to show the action as it unfolds and not give a journalistic rundown of what happened.

I bring this up because I've been seeing this phrase pop up a lot on the book review blogs over the past year. I don't know who spilled the phrase to reviewers, but people be going crazy with it and I'm not sure they really get the editorial purpose of it. So that has inspired this post, where I beg them all to HOLD THEIR SEAHORSES for just a minute while I rant.

First of all, "Show. Don't Tell." doesn't mean that a character can't relay a bit of information or express a private thought or opinion. It's like in a play when a piece of action takes place off-stage and then gets mentioned later. Sometimes, it's more important or intriguing NOT to show the reader something.

Second of all, I want to remind everyone that telling can be compelling too. If the language and writing is interesting, then a well-told story is fascinating. 

Telling can often allow for a well-shown story to become even bigger by providing episodes that don't take place in the timeline. When used as a memory delivery device, it can very effective in showing the inner workings of how the past influences us in our present. Telling also allows for a character to act one way in a scene, but reveal to the reader that it is an act. 

This obsessive need some reviewers/readers feel to be shown everything is really disturbing to me in a way. I believe it's a product of having lived in the movie age for so long. We're so used to being shown everything that it becomes boring to be told anything. 

A novel shouldn't be a screenplay. Writing is a way of storytelling is first and foremost about language. The visual aspects are a perk. Enjoy the writing.  

If you must be shown everything...I suggest you go watch a movie. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this entry. I'm taking a creative nonfiction class and one of the major guide lines for our pieces is "show don't tell". It drives me crazy. I mean, I completely agree that sometimes showing readers what's going on is much better than telling, but sometimes it gets to be too much. Sometimes I just want to tell.