Saturday, February 25, 2012

Show, Don't Tell - Really?

If there' s one axiom in the world of writing that's been blown completely out of proportion it's—show, don't tell. More often than not I would say it's a good axiom to remember, but there are incidents where it just wastes everyone's time if an author takes several pages trying to get something across through the show style that could have been said in one or two paragraphs without boring everybody. I don't know how many stories I've had to endure where whole pages were given to show that a character was overweight and slow. Describing someone's features is usually unnecessary to begin with, but if you must do it, then keep it short and pithy.

Behold, a new axiom I give unto thee: Showing is fine. Just don't be boring about it!

You must always keep reminding yourself not to write long passages of description that are pointless to the story. This is where most writers go wrong with the style of showing. Just ask yourself how you'd feel on the other end of such descriptions. Do you really want a lengthy description of a medical procedure? Probably not. Now if that doctor is committing a crime during the operation, that might be different.

Sometimes it's wonderful fun to know exactly what a character is thinking. Such was the case with GK Chesterton's Father Brown character, a sleuth of murder mysteries who had an amazing thought process. It was essential that he tell us why a murderer committed his act rather than just describing the act and the events that led up to it. Chesterton gave us a curious glimpse into the minds of killers that wouldn't have been possible by simply describing what they did and the mechanics of how they did it. In fact, it's almost a given thing in a Father Brown story that we'll be told exactly what happened, who did it, and why toward the end of the tale. And that great telling at the end is the part we all wait for with great anticipation.

Telling is great for two things. One, it let's you breeze by items of ordinary interests. Two, it allows us a keen insight into a character's mind such as this passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

Well, one thing was dead sure, and that was that Tom Sawyer was in earnest, and was actuly going to help steal that nigger out of slavery. That was the thing that was too many for me. Here was a boy that was respectable and well brung up; and had a character to lose; and folks at home that had characters; and he was bright and not leather-headed; and knowing and not ignorant; and not mean, but kind; and yet here he was, without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business, and make himself a shame, and his family a shame, before everybody. I couldn't understand it no way at all. It was outrageous, and I knowed I ought to just up and tell him so; and so be his true friend, and let him quit the thing right where he was and save himself.

Mark Twain could have went out of his way to show us all these character traits about Tom Sawyer that Huck describes, but it would have taken a long time to do, and the story is not mainly about Tom Sawyer anyway, so it would have been pointless. Just telling us quickly about Tom gives us the low-down, and more importantly, Twain is able to do it in a short entertaining fashion. Besides, we'll find out all about Tom in another book.

The bottom line to all this show, don't tell stuff is that your writing must be entertaining, and descriptions usually are anything but. Descriptive writing is the biggest part of the show style. Don't overdo it! Keep them short. Don't drag them out just because some English professor told you to. There's every chance he downloaded his degree.