Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Show, Don't Tell. And Then, What?

Sooner or later, anyone with even a marginal relationship to storytelling stumbles into the show-don't-tell trope, often with more rancorous results than anticipated.

Show-don't-tell is in its way a truth even more universally acknowledged than a young man in possession of a good fortune being on the prowl for a wife.  Persons you don't know well or at all, upon learning some hint of your interests and background will tell you to show, don't tell, as a means of initiating conversation.

In actuality, show-don't-tell is a conversation stopper.  Beyond a few guarded, "I know" or "Makes sense most of the time," what more can you say?  In fact, what more is there to say except perhaps "Not necessarily so," which somehow makes you want to start singing when you think of those three words.

The basic intention of the trope has the effect of telling the author to stay out of the story, to look for ways to get the information you may have been likely to tell into the story in some more subtle, dramatic way.  For instance, the overdone weather report.  "It was raining."  As things stand, that's pure tell.  Added to that, you have a dislike for beginning sentences with the word "it," in the belief that such a construction will cause the reader to respond with the obvious question of "what?"  "What was raining?"

A distraction is a distraction, and you find "It was raining" a distraction, meaning your goal, should you wish to show a condition of rain in progress existed within a story, needs some thought to slip the rain through the narrative crack between tell and show.  John ventured out into the rain.  John hadn't expected rain and so he'd neglected to bring an umbrella.  What about, "I can tell you're a tourist; you make no allowances for rain showers such as--" holding out his hand, "--this."

Pianists do not usually perform "Chopsticks" or "Heart and Soul" in concert.  They in fact practice many complicated scales and exercises with the intent of expanding their mobility for such complexities as, for one notable example, Maurice Ravel's Alborado del Gracioso, which requires stunning dexterity.

Writers tend to make assumptions about how a) easy writing is and b) how they are regarded as being accomplished storytellers.  They do so in fact flaunting conventions surrounding show-don't-tell with an airy disdain, which wouldn't be so disingenuous if they'd put forth some time practicing how to show, not tell, and further, if they'd recognize that there are times when telling is not a deal breaker.

Story is essentially two technical matters, dialogue and narrative.  We may grant some wiggle room by allowing interior monologue--the stuff characters exchange with themselves to play in the same sandbox as dialogue.  Thus we have spoken dramatic information or information visibly thought by one or more characters, and we have one or more characters witnessing dramatic action.  Small stuff can (and should) be told because once it's out, it becomes part of the totality of the effect the story can have on the reader, working without calling attention to itself.

Showing everything can lead to some disasters known as reader feeders, attempts at showing that call embarrassment to themselves from the way they stand out against the smooth flow of dramatic information.  The emerging writer, proud of the prowess demonstrated in showing rather than telling, will defend the reader feeder with some vigor.  "That was showing, all the way."  Their theory is that anything expressed in dialogue is automatic drama.  But these misguided individuals fail to recognize that such "dialogue" (note the use of quotation marks here) is only--gulp--conversation.

In your first-draft mind (Yes, Virginia, there is a first-draft mind), "It" may well have been hot, so hot that "it" was making Ed uncomfortable and ruining the freshness of his newly laundered shirt.  But your second- and third-draft mindsets will have worked their way with the material to the point where Ed will be aware of the heat in ways that will convince the reader without distracting the reader.  It was so cold that flashers in the park were content to describe themselves.  Ed noted.

Within the crevices of your fourth- and fifth-draft mindset is the awareness that showing everything, which is to say demonstrating all dramatic beats (including stage directions) would produce a final draft of some considerable size.

Show, don't tell, eh?  Consider this:  You know a lovely person, one who spent considerable time developing her abilities as a storyteller.  This fact has encountered some unavoidable grief due to the growing presence of dementia.  She is still out and about, and the last time you saw her, she leaned across a restaurant table, motioning you closer, clearly wanting to tell you something.

"Yes?"  you said.

She smiled.  "Kill your darlings,"  she said.

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