Posts Tagged show not tell
Yesterday I was teaching an editing masterclass at The Guardian. During the lunch break I got chatting to a desk editor from its sister title The Observer, who remarked that he’d always been curious about writing a novel, but wondered where his journalism instincts would be a hindrance and where an advantage. (He was also remaking several news pages to squeeze in the latest royal birth, so was possibly hankering for a life where he’d be in charge of the surprises.)
When I’m not working with fiction, I do sub-editing shifts on a magazine, so I have a foot in both worlds. And many of us have day jobs where we might write reports, presentations, legally required notes or other documents. Although all of this helps us get used to creating text, it doesn’t help us use it in the way a novelist does.
Here are two major differences.
Difference 1 – the reader’s journey
Journalists – and anyone who writes reports or presentations – learn this guiding principle: ‘Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them you said it.’
Fiction observes this three-step principle to an extent. Themes and concerns are evident early on and the end seems to arise out of the beginning. So far, so good. But the way fiction fulfils its mission is not the same at all.
Reports and articles take the reader on a straightforward journey. Draw a diagram of the reader’s progress through an article or presentation, and it will be a straight line. Statement, development, conclusion (though see Hugh’s comment below for a few exceptions…).
In fiction, the journey is anything but straightforward. We do not want the reader to guess where we’re going to end up. We want to surprise, reilluminate, perhaps startle. We might want to create complex emotions. The main character may start with a particular goal, then decide they want something else, then change their mind again, then decide none of it was important.
Draw a diagram of the reader’s journey through a novel, and there will be ups, downs, reversals. It may circle back to the place it started or even go backwards and off the scale. The conclusion might be boldly stated, in terms of a problem solved. Or it may be a resonant moment that leaves the reader assembling the final pieces.
A satisfying novel that takes the reader on a journey will not be a straight line. (If it is, it’s known as a linear plot – and will seem plodding and predictable.)
Difference 2 – the relationship with the reader
In an article or report we present facts, issues and ideas. In a novel we work on the reader at deeper levels. We can be subtle and manipulative. We might plant clues, then misdirect so that the reader doesn’t see them. We might make the reader love a character and then do something vile to them.
In a report or article, we might attempt to be balanced, concise and authoritative. In a novel, we might narrate as characters who are biased, unreliable or on the very bad side. Nya-ha-harrgh.
Two habits to unlearn if you write novels
Avoid condensing the process of change. In novels, change is gradual.
Journalism – and other types of report – tend to be super-condensed. When I’ve critiqued first novels by journalists they have a distinctive problem – when characters change it is sudden. For instance, an errant boyfriend is given a talking-to by a wise friend and in the next scene he’s changed his ways.
This sharp contrast will work well in an article or a report. It makes the point that change has happened. But in a novel, the change is part of the reader’s journey, so it is more gradual, spread out over the book. We might also have periods where the character resists, which is why it is a challenge. Thinking back to our graph of the reader’s journey, this is the meandering line.
Stop using scenes and dialogue to convey only a focussed message
Reports and articles are written with a ‘message’ in mind. Quotes from sources and interviewees are used to back the message up. But dialogue in a novel is much more organic and rich.
Mrs de Winter said she was delighted to be at her new home Manderley, but found the housekeeper Mrs Danvers a little frightening. ‘She gives me the screaming creeps,’ said Mrs de Winter.
For novels, we prefer the reader to draw that conclusion for themselves, by giving them an experience. We include details that would be irrelevant clutter to the journalist or report writer. I just opened Rebecca, looking for the scene where Mrs de Winter becomes aware that Mrs Danvers is an intimidating presence. It isn’t one line, or even one paragraph. It’s a scene that builds over several pages, with clues in the characters’ expressions, body language, tone of voice, choice of words and the narrator’s thoughts, the atmosphere of menace and unease.
Of course, you may want to direct the reader strongly – after all, some narrators are highly judgemental. But I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that stop the characters coming alive because they present the action in a digest.
(Indeed, you might think this topic is looking familiar – it’s that old chestnut, show, not tell. Outside of novels or narrative non-fiction, the norm is to tell, not show.)
So if you’re transitioning to novels from other forms of writing, here are my 5 tips for success:
- – make the journey purposeful, but tangled
- – try being unreliable, biased and manipulative
- – be lengthy
- – build the truth gradually, and seek it in the details that seem irrelevant
- – read novels – and notice how the prose does its work
There’s more on plot twists, structure, show not tell and endings in this little thingy.
And meanwhile … congratulations, my hard-working Observer friend, on your new front page.
Have you had to unlearn any writing habits in order to write fiction? Are there any more you’d add to my list?
You know one of the best ways to irritate someone? Keep telling them how wonderful a person is who they don’t know – and never say why. ‘She’s so lovely.’ ‘She’s great.’ ‘She’s terrific.’ Result? After a while, you think ‘she’ is anything but.
I’ve been reading a novel where the author has been doing exactly this. The main character has been separated from a girl he has fallen in love with, and for long periods is wondering if he’ll ever see her again. The author did a grand job of setting up the romance earlier. The problem was when he was separated from her and the yearning began.
Tell me again, I can’t bear it
We have endless screeds of ‘he loved her so much’. ‘She had a certain something.’ (What did she have? Three ears?) ‘He felt a pain whenever he thought of her.’ (In what way was he thinking of her?’) It was unsatisfying, empty – and pretty soon very irritating.
Why? Readers (in general, not just heartless old me) don’t like being told what to feel. We want to feel it too. Or we actually react the other way. (Which is fine if that’s what you want. In this book it wasn’t the case.)
Besides, it’s not truthful. Perhaps that’s why we resent it, because it seems empty and insincere. When someone’s really missing their dear one, they don’t remember their summary of the emotion. They’d get an exquisite flashback of the time they got lost together walking back from the bus stop in the pitch dark. They’d find themselves snagged by faces in a crowd, because their foolish brain was saying ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if she was there’.
Show not tell
This is, of course, showing, not telling. And it’s so powerful. Showing makes the reader feel what the character feels. It casts a spell of experience. It is not analytical. It is not a summing-up. It presents the truth and lets the reader make up their mind.
Show not tell is one of the hardest things for a writer to remember. The example that provoked this post is actually from a published novelist of otherwise impeccable accomplishments. Show not tell requires the most imaginative effort and all the writers I know slip unintentionally from time to time.
I’ve often wondered why this is. Maybe it’s because our analytical brain is saying ‘in this scene he missed her’ and it’s easy to write that. Showing it means we have to submerge into the character’s experience – which isn’t always easy. But showing intimately what a character feels is one of the most gripping things a writer does. Good writing isn’t words. It’s an experience. And experience is not analytical.
Don’t write the analysis. Write the experience.
Let’s play a game. Find an example you like and leave it in the comments – and afterwards show how you’d squash it flat by telling instead of showing. I’ll kick off.
‘Once he had been strong enough to lift a carousel horse in each arm. That was a long time ago.’ Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Telling version: ‘He used to be so strong’.
Take it away, guys
Thanks for the pic Philip Morton
In Hitchcock’s film Torn Curtain, there’s a scene where the protagonist kills a taxi driver. Normally you’d expect scenes like this to be presented in close up. We’d see the struggle, the driver’s desperate fight and the hero’s anguish in taking someone’s life. We might wonder what the outcome will be.
But that’s not what Hitchcock does. The scene is shot from a distance, as though it is happening to someone across a road. Almost as if it’s not even happening to the protagonist.
There are no questions about whether the MC will succeed. The driver is killed, and that is that. The MC doesn’t even pay a price by getting hurt. He doesn’t flinch from what he has to do. The distance of the camera plays with our empathy, representing how the characters distanced themselves from the deed. And so we see a normal, married man forced to kill an innocent stranger in cold blood. We see the resources he has in his soul that will ensure he survives. What does it do to the viewer? It makes us complicit in an uncomfortable world. As if we have made that choice too.
In Persuasion, Jane Austen shows the final reunion between the lovers as though she’s filming it at a distance. It’s surprising, but allows the characters privacy in their moment – which is all the more touching.
Of course, you need to use distance carefully. I often see scenes where writers duck out of showing a key event, possibly because they didn’t feel up to writing it. There is a strong likelihood that if you pull the prose camera away, the reader will feel cheated. You have to make a careful judgement call. If there are any questions lingering, the reader needs to see what happened. But if the reader can fill all the blanks and be just as satisfied, it might be powerful indeed.
Every event we share in a story has an effect beyond just showing what happened. And distance can sometimes lend more power than a close-up. Like Hitchcock, you could create an interesting complicit effect, show characters turning a corner. Result? The audience is disturbed in a way that is far more complex and chilling. Jane Austen had spent so long keeping her lovers apart that we wanted them to be together. When they finally were she went one better – she allowed them to be totally alone. Result? Reader satisfied.
That’s just two examples. Give me yours and tell me why you think they work!
Oh, and (spoon tapping glass). My Memories of a Future Life is getting great reviews. Episode 2: Rachmaninov and Ruin, is limbering up for release on Amazon at midnight as 4th September turns into 5th. You can find episode 1 here and you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here
I was critiquing a manuscript recently and as with all drafts, there were areas that sang beautifully and others that needed more work. Some types of scene came to life in a three-dimensional, gut-pummelling experience. Others trotted through at a distance as though the writer was including them dutifully but wasn’t interested in them. (And this distance wasn’t deliberate; sometimes we use these techniques for specific effects but that wasn’t what was going on here.)
Of course you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not interested in writing a scene, the reader won’t be interested in reading it. Either don’t bother or find something in the scene to engage you.
How to pep yourself up
Perhaps you don’t feel very sure of the content. Ask yourself – what are you not sure of? Do you need to do more research to bring it to life – for instance, if it’s a new location you don’t know well? Or do the characters need more to do beyond the main goal of the scene?
Or maybe you know full well what’s going to happen but you’d rather get to the next interesting bit. In which case, you either need to generate something in the scene that excites you (for instance, add conflict, twist events an unusual way) – or do something else entirely, no matter how inconvenient that seems.
But listen to the voice that tells you you’re unengaged. It’s telling you for your own good.
But this client’s manuscript was different. It was a thriller, but the author wasn’t engaged by his chases, backstabbing, skulking and close shaves with assassins. All of these were competent and well planned, but told at a summarised distance. I showed him how to make them ping off the page, of course. But he came to life, all by himself, in spectacular fashion in an extraordinary near-drowning scene, where the character has a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with the people stalking his psyche from his past. It was as though another book was trying to fight its way out of the one he thought he was writing. And one that was much more real to him.
This is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of writing. Just as parents have to let children be who they are rather than who they can be moulded into, writers sometimes have to let their true genre bust out by itself. Inconvenient though that might be if you think you’re writing a straightforward, saleable genre novel.
Is your book telling you you haven’t yet found the right genre?
Thank you, Iko, for the picture. Coming August 30: My Memories of a Future Life.
I’m fascinated to know if anyone else has done this. Have you tried to write one sort of novel and found you naturally wrote another?
Sometimes writers have to state the obvious or
put in a scene everybody is expecting. But that’s
not a licence to coast. Here’s how Stephen King’s
The Green Mile makes an obligatory scene into
Some writers might coast here – surely the material is startling enough that you don’t have to do anything else with it, right?
Here’s what The Green Mile does.
It shows two execution scenes, in stark contrast.
The first isn’t real, it’s a rehearsal. One guard plays the ‘condemned’ man. He gibbers like a loon and makes lewd last requests. When the other guards throw the switch he writhes and screams with glee. The prison governor allows them to lark about, knowing he is seeing nervous men struggling with a difficult job. He also tries to keep the joking to a minimum because there is a newcomer who needs to be trained. This allows us a way in – in several ways: the prison governor trying not to let the hi-jinks get out of hand, yet realizing the men need to let off steam. The guards themselves, coping with the stress the best way they can. And the new guard, seeing all this for the first time. It also gives the author a licence to dump in as much exposition as he wants. Masterful.
And then he goes one better by showing an actual execution. And how different it is. The prisoner is frightened. The governor handles him with great sensitivity. The guards who were roaring with laughter before are nervous and gentle.
The Green Mile could have gone straight to this scene, relying on the content to speak for itself. But because he put the other one before it, the real one becomes much more appalling. We see how strange and difficult a thing it is to extinguish life.
I often see manuscripts in which the writer assumes there are some things they don’t have to explain. Execution is a nasty business – who’d have thought? Surely you don’t have to spell that out.
Wrong. For two reasons.
1 One of the things audiences have paid their money for is details of the grisly process. They need to get it somehow. What they don’t realize they want is for you to make it way more powerful than they were expecting. So you can’t just cruise with scenes like this.
2 In the world of your story, anything is possible. You could have, if you wanted, a bunch of prison guards who were completely blase, and no more affected by executing a man than if they were squashing a fly. You set the rules of the story, what is right, what is wrong, what is difficult and what is easy. And you have to demonstrate them.
So, an execution must be shown and it must be shown to be a difficult job. But The Green Mile turns this into storytelling gold.
Have you got any favourite examples of exposition and obligatory scenes that have been handled with panache? Have you solved similar problems?
We usually do all we can to ensure readers suspend disbelief.
But there is a story technique that directly invites the reader to reject everything they are seeing.
I call it challenging the reader’s oath of faith (although more literary types call it distancing or alienation).
Here’s an example. In the film Total Recall, the action stops and a psychiatrist tells the MC, Doug, that he is not on Mars, but in Rekall Inc’s offices on Earth, dreaming a pre-ordered fantasy – go to Mars, get the girl, kill the bad guys, save the planet. Now the psychiatrist tells Doug it’s gone wrong and he must exit.
The audience knows this may be true. Right at the start of the story, we saw Doug go to Rekall Inc for a virtual vacation to Mars. Everything has happened as he asked and now somebody has appeared to tell him the fantasy has to stop. It is a question not just for Doug but the audience. Choose logic, or know you are going with a delusion.
Done badly, it’s asking for disaster. But done well, it’s powerful indeed.
It tests our faith and reinforces it. We are given evidence that Doug’s whole adventure might be a dream – and we decide we don’t care. We give him and his cause our wholehearted commitment.
There’s a classic oath-of-faith moment in The Matrix. Morpheus tells Neo: ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.’
Here’s another example, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have shared Marion Crane’s confusion and guilt, been chilled by the creepiness of Norman. Then, in a long scene at the end of the film, a man perches on the edge of his desk and analyses everything Norman did in clinical, academic terms. Norman’s dead mother is living as an alternate psyche in Norman’s mind and that explains everything.
We think, is that all? Can this experience be summed up by psychobabble? Some commentators even complained this was Hitchcock having an off day – telling not showing, blatant use of exposition, stopping the action etc etc. They missed the point – it’s meant to make us pull back and think, this cannot be the truth.
In both these examples, the ground was prepared. Doug went to Rekall for a virtual vacation to Mars, and his adventures have been just what he asked for – so the logical objections have to be despatched at some point. And with Psycho, we do seek an explanation. But when we hear it, we shake our heads and say, no there’s so much more to it than that.
The writer’s skill was in tackling the question at the right moment. Slipping in the moment of distancing that would make us choose with our hearts.
Stories are about belief and faith. Yes, they must work logically, but that is just the surface. Underneath this, good stories tap into what we want, what we love, fear and care about. We respond to people we like and dislike, what is right, satisfying, inexplicably wrong – and what we feel to the core of our souls.
If you dare, tell the reader it isn’t real.