Monday, November 3, 2014

Choosing when to Show and when to Tell

In the movie Men in Black, the agents have a pen-like gadget that causes amnesia.  I could have used one of those this past week. 
Two years ago I wrote on how to show and when to tell, so I wanted to be able to reference the older post. In it I gave five pointers on how to “show not tell.” That advice turned out to be erroneous.  Yup, it was wrong. I wish I could take it back, erase it from cyberspace, claim an alien abduction, but alas, I can blame no one else for that post.  In all my eagerness and ignorance, I wrote it and I apologize.
Now, not all of it was bad advice; it just wasn’t what it advertized.
I suggested that a writer could ensure “showing” by eliminating the passive voice and limiting the use of adverbs in the manuscript.  That, folks, is not “showing;” that is a key to strengthening any kind of writing.  It makes for well-written sentences, meatier passages, and stronger manuscripts; and it strengthens both showing and telling sentences.
Showing is more complicated than that. 
It is the difference between Ben Stein reading the nightly news and Carol Burnett and Company acting it out.  It is the difference between a one-hour discussion with Siri on your cell phone and a one-hour discussion with a two-year-old while you chase him through the house.
Both could be entertaining but too much of one without respites of the other would be an overload. A good writer chooses what to show and what to tell.  The showing passages must impact the manuscript, not just overdo it. 
Emotions should always be shown and not told.  When someone is glad, sad, or angry, the reader should experience the emotion without it being mentioned anywhere on the page.  The senses are involved. Comparisons are created by newly created, fresh similes and metaphors.
Broad, non-specific adjectives should be eliminated.  Everyone experiences “fuzzy, cool, weird, scary” differently, so the reader needs to be shown exactly what it means to feel these descriptors. (The only time these words should be permitted is in dialogue, when they are a part of the character’s daily vocabulary.)
Setting must be shown when it is integral to the tone or the mood of the story.  Think about the decrepit, lonely bedroom that belongs to Ebenezer Scrooge, or the drab diner where Toula Portakalos ages along with the Formica in My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding. Description of the setting is a must when the setting is as important as its characters.
But not all action has to be “shown.” Stage directions where the characters sit, stand, walk to the door are important but they must be stated as subtly as the words in dialogue tags, like “said” or “asked.”
Action that moves the plot forward is shown. Descriptions of the actions along with the emotions that trigger them have to be elaborated. It doesn’t have to be all car chases and bullets flying, but important moments that affect the characters or the plot. Take the scene with Scrooge and Christmas Present where abundance surrounds the ghost and Scrooge asks about the future of Tiny Tim. Dickens introduces us to the two orphans Want and Ignorance, and we feel the remorse Scrooge feels. We are left to hope Scrooge changes with the experience.
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I hope this post atones for the previous one on this subject.  I deleted the other post but maybe I should have left it up on my blog so that the two could be compared and contrasted, and the improvement could be noted, but I am too ashamed.

Instead . . . look into the light - 

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