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Show Me

There’s an odd dance we play with character. Major characters should come alive on the page. But we can’t label them, point at them, tell about them. We must show. Thus we come to the time-worn issue of showing vs. telling.

Anyone else wrangle with this besides me? The constant pressure to avoid saying things directly can grind a writer down. And why, really, shouldn’t we just tell? Admit it, it would feel good for once to say: “Major Character A is dealing with these internal demons thank you very much, and she’s failing because of tendency B and habit C. (Fill in the italics with your own MC and his/her characteristics.)

Except it doesn’t work very well. And not because telling is clunky and so frowned upon by graduate writing programs.

The two sides of story

The thing about stories is that writers aren’t in a position to force-feed readers. Readers aren’t in a pen waiting to receive their medicine/entertainment/art. They are skeptical and skittish–even though they’ve just bought your book! And, to be fair, they are human beings. When they read our stories they are reaching across a distance to close a gap with the writer.

There are, of course, two sides to the story experience. It is, as Michael Chabon has said in Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, “contact across a void.” Thus we must give the reader something to do, we must be the negative charge in the cloud to their positive earth force. Lightning strikes. But it takes two.

To belabor my analogy, what is that negative charge of the writer? It is the state of not telling everything. To leave things out, letting the reader fill it in. Thus, not too much description, no dead-obvious themes and, in the case of character development, no “Scarlett is used to having her own way, relying on charm and sex appeal.” Instead, the reader sees her in action. He draws his own conclusion, taking pleasure in doing so. And not only does he enjoy figuring it out, he demands to do so. Because if you tell him, he will begin to resist. “Oh yeah? Says who?”

It’s about persuasion

We persuade the skeptical reader. Why is she skeptical? Think about it. She’s reading 400 pages of lies. You’ve made up the entire thing, cooked up a stew of plot and motivation and coincidental casting. The reader is holding this book in her hands and looking for–and very much needing–verisimilitude. And what is real in life is that there is no god-like authorial voice telling us how people are. We figure it out.

So instead of saying “Britney was a spoiled brat,” we might say “Britney fixed her mother with an outraged stare. ‘But you SAID I could have pizza!'”

The continuum of showing/telling

Show vs. tell as a commandment, however, fails to convey the gradations. There is such a thing as a little bit of each–all in the same sentence. “The adults fled Britney’s needling voice, gathering round the whiskey bottle in the kitchen.”

Sometimes dialog offers persuasive ways to tell. The character can attempt to explain herself to someone. (Also a fine opportunity for irony, if the MC gets it wrong!) But even if she’s right in what she claims about herself, make it a hard-won conversation. She is pressed to explain herself, or incensed enough to blurt it out. It doesn’t want to look like unearned, bald authorial telling.

And then there is what others say about her. This provides a nice, indirect way of describing someone. “Oh that child, spoiled from infancy!” The reader accepts this from a character, because, as in life, people are always summing up other people.

When telling is just fine

Let’s not go overboard, though. Some writers are so damn indirect that we end up feeling disconnected from the characters. Show don’t tell isn’t a rule. Both showing and telling are tools at your disposal. And in some circumstances you will want to simply tell.

The less depth you claim for a character, the more the reader accepts telling. Minor characters can be presented quickly, with firm authorial voice. You are not expecting the reader to invest much in this character; the reader is not going to start an argument about the arrogant maitre d’. That character just doesn’t matter in his own right.

Even with your major characters, it’s fine to outright tell an emotion when it doesn’t matter much. “She stared in shock as the hostess slapped the musician.” How does she feel? –In shock. But hey, she’s leaving the party anyway. It doesn’t matter how she feels. Anyone would have felt the same. The reader raises no argument. No opportunity lost, here, to make contact across the void.

Sometimes you just say it.


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