May 3rd, 2008

Telling vs. Showing

I edited this from an e-mail discussion with a fellow OWW member:

Telling vs. showing is one of the worst things to hear in a critique--I don't know if you've heard it before, but it's probably the most annoying thing I've dealt with so far, and I still do it if I'm not paying attention. I'm not sure I'm the right person to ask about it, since I still do it, but then again, maybe it helps that I understand how bloody impossible it is to spot. ;)

The first response I had when someone said, "Show, don't tell," was, "Um, all writing is telling--that's what I'm doing, telling a story!" We unfortunately have crappy language for these concepts. It would be better if there were writing-specific words, but instead we'll just have to go with writing-specific definitions. When I say you're telling, I mean you're summing up a variety of details by making them into a conclusion. When I say you should be showing, I mean I want you to show the variety of details and omit the conclusion.

I think part of our predilection for "telling" in writing comes from how we're taught to tell (and here I mean "convey") stories, and how we accept them verbally from other people. Most people say,
When I arrived, there was a clown sitting on the sidewalk, bawling like a baby missing some candy.
If my mom tells me that story, I'm going to believe it immediately because she's my mother, and I know she wouldn't lie. If you tell me that story, I'm going to be slightly more skeptical because I don't know you, and I think that's where telling-vs-showing is important. It's not that I think you're a liar--I definitely don't--but I'm going to watch your body cues and stuff. For all I know, it was just an ICP fan wearing Juggalo facepaint, and you misinterpreted that as a clown. And perhaps you hate clowns and might be saying he was sobbing when he was really just having an allergy attack that made his eyes water--you could have uncharitably chosen to interpret it as sobbing, since a clown just like him killed your father at a rodeo.

The point is, I'm suspicious because you flat-out told me a fact, and I know it could be unreliable because you could be unreliable. I can't hear an author or watch his body cues, and since it's fiction, I know the author could be trying to trick me.

The way you get around your reader's innate suspicion of facts presented by someone they don't know, that they have no way of verifying, is to make sure you're showing what happened through a variety of non-subjective details (or just more easily believable/imagined details). These should lead the reader to your obvious conclusion. Once they feel like they've made the conclusion on their own, they're going to trust it the way they never will if you say, "There was a..."

In this ridiculous crying clown example, if I was editing my work to make it have less telling, I'd change it to,
A man in a wig leaned against a parking meter, his over-sized shoes dragging in a puddle of oil. He didn't seem to notice through the cascade of tears smearing his red and white facepaint.
Now you know he's a clown, even though I didn't really say it, so if I refer to him as a clown later, you won't feel like I'm bossing you around and telling you what's what--I let you figure it out, and THEN I showed that I also had figured it out. You also think he's crying, but you're still open to the possibility that he could have eaten an Indian ghost pepper or petted a Persian cat and then rubbed his eyes. Neither of us are sure about the tears yet, but we'll find out soon, because now that we have our guesses, it's okay to make it clear when I ask the clown,
"Hey, man, are you all right?"

The clown's shoulders shake as he sobs a reply. "No. I just got four rejections in the mail today, and every one of them said my novel had too much telling."

I produce five envelopes from inside my jacket pocket. "Hey man, don't sweat it. I've got five, and every one of them is a form."
I don't know if that helps you, but I'll tell you something: even writing this reply helped me, so thank you so much for asking me what I meant by my review.