…What does that even mean?
The other night my son and I were discussing a Netflix show he was watching, Altered Carbon, a new show classified as neo-noir. While some of it was good, he’d realized he had finally identified what wasn’t working for it.
First off, there was a lack of nuance in it. Emotionally-speaking there were no gray areas. Two things in the show’s world – religion and elitism – were written as bad, equally bad, with no mitigating circumstances for anything. This moral code seemed to come from the writers’ POV, rather than arising organically from the world they’d created. The show was okay, he said, but we agreed it had no place no place to go, no depth as it is currently conceived.
He did note, however, that the writing was quite good in some places, and that there were scenes where they did an excellent job of showing the story without a lot of exposition. Which, he said, is natural, because it’s visual media, not written.
Which brought us to the topic above.
By the time many writers realize they are serious about their art and write to actually get published, they are scurrying – rightfully – from workshop to conference to writers group for advice. Often-times in critiques they’ll be advised “And of course, always show, don’t tell” in a casual sort of way. Longtime writers forget that this short-hand expression they throw about is a trick phrase that new writers will nod their heads to without ever understanding how to do it. I’ve seen many a newbie struggle with the concept. Especially people who know how to communicate and are successful in other areas of their lives. They feel it can’t be anything too far beyond their reach. But ‘show don’t tell’ is not the obvious command veterans take it for.
So, I say, let’s dissect it.
Good. I’m writing words for heaven’s sake. How do I show anything when I’m not using pictures?
Hello? Oh, it’s you.
Yes, it’s me. How the heck am I supposed to ‘show’ something when I’m writing? It’s letters, it’s words. It’s me telling you a story in your head. I can’t show you pictures. You read chapter books!
Calm down; you’re overheating. You’re right, of course. We’re using words, and readers usually do hear a voice in their heads, so essentially we are telling them the whole thing. But you’ve heard of painting pictures with words, right? You can make people see pictures in their heads.
I get the same response whether the listener is 8 or 68. If they haven’t been writing for long, or more, if they haven’t read a book in a long time, people forget what it’s like. They think of the literal act of reading instead of the feeling of reading. Now, follow me here. If you read, say, a textbook, what happens?
I fall asleep.
No doubt you do. Processing information from a textbook is simply processing facts, information. There is no emotion to feel or environment to sense. The writer doesn’t much care whether you’re entertained or not, he or she just wants to make sure they give you all you need to know. You, as a reader, are not trying to feel emotions of a conflicted hero or the broiling sun on his face, you are not trying to be a part of the person’s life. You are not trying to be in their picture. But in fiction, that is exactly what is happening. The writer (a good writer) appeals to all your senses to make you feel like you are in the middle of the story yourself.
The only way to do that is to convey the story by showing you what is happening, not just telling you.
All right, all right. HOW do you do that? How do you show, not tell?
You – the writer – do it by getting out of the way of the reader. And, as our time is up for now, we’ll discuss this further next time.
Wait? What? Aaarghg! You can’t do this!
Well, – I – nope. I’m on a schedule. Next part, next time. But we’ll finish then, I promise.