Bonus: Day One Hundred & Four Point One

13 Apr

Unsolicited Writing Advice

Ah, writers. We, the masters of word-smithy. The wranglers of the plot bunnies and word monkeys. Bastions of the mighty pillars of the grammatical tenants.

When we offer advice to the world, it should flourish, sing, dance through the fairy wood, tripping lightly around the naked nymphs and beams of sunlight. It should offer meaning not only to your work, but to your life, your existence, the very breath you take…

Then we give you “Show, Don’t Tell”, dowsing you and your talent with a bitter blast of confusion.

A three-word chunk of easily repeatable word-fu is not valuable advice. All it does is open the writer to more questions.

“Is this showing or telling? If I have Marco, Lord of the Middle Ground, tell his armies of ragnors the history of the Slothbar Plain, is that telling or showing? How do I show it without taking up three chapters and boring the reader to tears?”

No one said writing was easy, but that level of torture is cruel and unusual. Questions like that leave the door open for the Doubt Monster to walk right in and take up residence on your couch. Believe me, it is very easy to lay down that half-finish manuscript when you have a Doubt Monster eating your leftovers, drinking out of your milk carton, watching your cable.

So why do we do it? Why do we give ourselves such confusing bits of “knowledge”?

On one hand, they are easy to remember. We love easily digestible nuggets of word candy. Not just writers, but everyone. Your grocery lists read “eggs, milk, bread” not “a carton of large free-range organic brown eggs, a half-gallon of low-fat soy milk, whole grain artisanal loaf” even though you know that when you get to the store you will seek out the free-range and the low-fat and the whole grain. This also infers that the word nuggets have a deeper meaning. Just as the list didn’t give the full description, neither is “Show, Don’t Tell” the complete idea. It’s just the easy-to-remember part.

On the other hand, those three little words can be interpreted a billion different ways. Figuring out what they mean for you is part of the process. Will you get a greater impact by telling your audience certain details rather than showing them? Then by all means, tell. You have to figure out what is best for you and for your story. There are no hard and fast rules, and these bite-sized pieces of wisdom can be bent and twisted to fit each writer and each story.

{Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t read Looking For Alaska by John Green or Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, skip past this part.}

In Looking For Alaska, when the protagonist dies, we are told. Straight up, icy cold shower, told. The emotion is sharp, stinging; it takes our breath away and throws us into shock. Why did Green do it this way? To make us feel the way the characters felt. To take us away from the action of dying and make us deal with the aftermath. “She’s dead. Boom. Not a thing you can do about it. She’s gone. What do you do now?”

Those are very different emotions from what we feel at the end of Lord of The Rings. In the beginning of the sixth book, we are taken on the long plodding journey with Sam and Frodo from the boarders of Mordor to Mount Doom. We watch with Sam as the Ring is finally destroyed. When it is done, the tension that has built up over the previous chapters is released, a feeling of relief rushes in. In the movie, we are with the Fellowship as they watch Mount Doom explode. We feel the exhaustion of battle, the moment of victory, then the agony of losing Frodo and Sam.

How different would it be if Green put us in the car with Alaska as she plowed into the cop car? What would the emotion be if he had put us in her head, if we understood her reasoning when she took off into the night? I don’t think it would have the same impact, because then we are left revealing to the other main characters something we already know. The shock isn’t there. The raw emotion isn’t there.

And how different would it be if we didn’t see the destruction of Mount Doom through the eyes of the Fellowship? What would we feel if we learned about it from Gandalf or Aragorn? The emotional impact of being told that the ring was destroyed wouldn’t be nearly as deep as watching it happen.

{Done with the spoilers now.}

There are benefits to telling, just as there are benefits to showing. In the end, I think it’s more about the balance and the emotion you’re trying to convey rather than getting caught up in semantics. Or, as Chuck Wendig put it:

What’s the ratio? How much showing versus how much telling? Since I like arbitrary made-up numbers with absolutely no reflection in reality, I’ll say, mmm, somewhere in the 70/30 split range, with the 70% going toward showing over telling. More to the point: more showing, less telling.

His post “A Long Look At ‘Show, Don’t Tell’” is well worth a read.

I think this, as with most of the technical bits of writing, is all about knowing yourself as a writer, knowing your story, and knowing what you want to convey to the reader. If you don’t know these things yet, that’s okay. It will come in time. Don’t worry about the silly things like showing versus telling, and concentrate instead on writing. The silly things tend to work themselves out.

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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Daily



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