Monday, January 21, 2013

Show Versus Tell Part 3

Show Versus Tell

Part 3: Frankensteining It

Warning: This post contains questionably explicit quoted material that may not be suitable for everyone.

We've gone over how to turn Tell into Show and the importance of Telling. Now let's look at how authors stitch them together in some contemporary New York Times Notable Books and Bestsellers.

'My suffering left me sad and gloomy.
Academic study and the steady, mindful practice of religion slowly brought me back to life.' – Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Martel opens Chapter One of his novel-turned-movie with a Telling statement, followed by a narrative summary chronicling the protagonist's university experience.

Why use a Tell in this instance?

The Telling lines are necessary because they present information the audience must know, the protagonist's state of mind, in order to interpret the significance of the sloths, the swimming pool, the ocean, the ship, the orangutan, the tiger.

In essence, the novel is a map and the Telling opening is the legend. Without it, we could stumblingly navigate from point A to point B. With it, we see the riches and richness of the story as a whole.

'I shrugged. "I've thought about it. But I'm not sure it's such a great idea."
Laura looked puzzled. "But you and Ruth, you were so close."
"Yeah, I suppose so. But like with you, Laura. She and I weren't such great friends by the end."' – Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Here, the importance of Telling dovetails with Dialogue Beats maintaining Pace and Tension. In other words, consider how this segment would change if we turned this into a 

Laura looked puzzled.

How do you know?

Because her brows drew together, her eyes narrowed, her lips pursed and she was silent for a moment before she said –

This Show drags the Pace by drawing the reader's focus to Laura's brows, eyes, lips, and the silence, when what the characters are saying (revealing through dialogue) is far more important. If Ishiguro had wanted to open that line to speculation and different interpretations, a Show would have been appropriate.

But the audience must know that how the protagonist perceived her own relationship with Ruth is different from how other people perceived it.

That Tell, Laura looked puzzled, emphasizes what Laura says next, and sets up that dialogue line to be interpreted in a specific way.

Lastly, let's take a look at The Namesake.
It’s written in Omni 3rd, Present Tense, with years condensed into distant Telling summaries, and key minutes stretched out with Showing details.

One example that stands out is how Lahiri handles the protagonist's sex life.

'It is as Nikhil that he loses his virginity at a party at Ezra Stiles, with a girl wearing a plaid woolen skirt and combat boots and mustard tights.' – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake.

Why Tell this, when loss of virginity is usually a significant coming-of-age moment?

Consider what we've covered about Telling: it imparts necessary information that the author wishes to convey with few or little interpretation. Here, it's a simple fact: Nikhil loses his virginity. In context, it's a statement hidden in an entire paragraph of new college experiences, as if it's a chore to check off on a list. Did we interpret this the way the author wanted?

A few pages later, we find:

'He recalled nothing from that episode, only being thankful, afterward, that he was no longer a virgin.' - Lahiri, The Namesake.

And there's Lahiri emphasizing what we already got from her Telling statement, just to be sure, because the next scene, with a different girl, is:

'He kisses them, kisses the moles scattered on her stomach as she arcs gently toward him, feels her hands on his head and then on his shoulders, guiding him between her parted legs.' - Lahiri, The Namesake

By Telling first, we have something to compare this Show scene to, and can interpret this scene as far more important to the protagonist than the loss of his virginity. This is the scene he wants to experience and remember, therefore this is the scene Lahiri Shows and slows with Details.

In your WIP (especially if you're trying to get under a word count!) find and condense tertiary showing scenes into narrative summary or key Telling statements.
Then, find and expand (with specific and unique Details!) scenes which would benefit from multiple interpretations. Like scenes that are:
1. Important to your main character(s).
2. Important to your plot.
3. Important to your themes.

Happy revising,
Coming up: 
I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. Then:
Dialogue Tags
Jay Groce
Robert Bevan

Sources for this post:
Life of Pi by Yann Martel, 2001.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, 2003.
Photos from and linked to IMDB.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Show Versus Tell Part 2

Show Versus Tell

Part 2: Tell

The comments: "This was redundant and repetitive and you said the same things in chapters 2, 5, 8, and 10." Or "It lacked sophistication." Or "The pace was eye-gougingly boring." Or "For f*ck's sake, get on with it already!"

What they mean: You might need to Tell more, Show less! 

What?!?!?! Is that even possible? Yes. It's also necessary. Why? We'll get to that in a little bit. 
The good news is, you probably already did a lot of telling in version one (ie, Rough Draft) of your awesome epic. But if you've been diligently seeking and replacing all versions of Tell with Show in your WIP, you might have gone a little overboard suffusing your story with details (a common pitfall of revision).

The result is a WIP bogged down by too much Show. Check that phrase: bogged down. Brings to mind an image of someone slogging through a bog, each step a struggle to pull against gravity, against the suck of thick muck and gnarled weeds.

Give the reader a rest with some Tell bits.

How, though? To understand it best, let's take a look at Why we should use Tell in favor of Show, and where this is appropriate in the story.

Let's put on our serious pants and review Show:

The journey was long and difficult.

How do you know? 

Because we had to leave the horses in the last village and continue on foot. Sharp stones from shattered boulders littered the cliff-side path. For a month we marched, burdened by food packs that we cursed while the rain-gorged ground threatened to crumble from beneath our feet and send us sliding to the blade-edge peaks of frozen water below.
Cool. Now why should we convert such a description into Tell?

If the character uses this path more than once, the next time we visit it could be summarized by Tell. Same goes for if most of the terrain is like this. We don't need to know how long and difficult the journey was every single time

Let's look at another instance:

Jason was a serial cheater.

How do you know?

Because when he was dating my friend Carla, he was cheating on her with Claire. Then when he was with Claire, he cheated on her with Brenda. Then when he was with Brenda, he cheated on her with Bill. 

How important was that list of names? How important is Jason in the story? The more you show about a character, the more important he seems. In fact, we could parse out that description to last half the story. Is half the story about Jason? Or is he simply coming in to reveal something important? If he has a bit part, give him a "bit" description.

Boil it down to exactly what the reader needs in order to understand his revelation in the correct light. If Jason is a serial cheater, then he might be a practiced liar. Which means I should hold what he has to say in my head, but prepare myself for the moment it might be proven false. And what a delightful surprise it would be if he's actually telling the truth! (There's your sophistication right there.)

So, second instance of Telling instead of Showing: The reader needs to Know something, rather than Feel it. You are presenting information that, for the purpose of your story, must be understood exactly the way you present it, with no room for alternate interpretations.

Let's do one more.

Countess Vanessa's house was immense. 

How do you know? 

Because each time I visited, I had to go through the atrium, which was so large a cottage could fit inside. Then I went through the front hall, which was so long, an entire barn could fit within. And then I had to go through the ballroom, which was so big and tall we could fit a football game within, including a few thousand spectators. Then I had to go through …

For the love of all that's holy, if I had to read paragraph after paragraph of this, I would insist you paid me by the hour because it would be work. How much of this information do I need to retain? 

I ask because of the implication that each scene is important. Otherwise, why would you include it? 

When you get to a Showing scene, ask yourself: is this scene necessary. 

Of course it is.

But ask yourself: Does this scene do more than one thing?
Does it:
Advance Plot?
Develop Character?
Introduce another meaning to an established Theme?

In other words, Does this scene do something different than the other scenes before it? 

If the answer is still a resounding Yes, then keep it as is. 

If it's a meek yes, then trust your instinct. You put the scene in for a reason. It's probably because something happens in a location or situation we've been in before and you need to move us to that location. Just Tell it!

We returned to Countess Vanessa's immense house.

When you're segueing from one Show instance to another Show instance, Telling imparts valuable information necessary to understand the next scene in the right light. But it also gives the reader's mind a necessary break. A Tell instance allows for passive absorption of information.

Yes, I said Passive. It's the slight lull between interactive Show scenes in which a reader can digest what happened just before, and get ready for what's about to occur. 

A Telling instance can also be a chance for you to reveal your narrator's thought process: "I was angry, but I grinned and laughed my way through the party." If your character must appear jovial, how would you Show the anger? 

Without a Telling summary or a Telling narrative, a story's pace of Show after Show can feel overwhelming. 

Here's the checklist for when Tell might be the better option:
1. To impart (solid, necessary, unarguable) information.
2. Summarize repeated movement or habits.
3. Control story's pace. 

Caveat! The Tell is only as important as what surrounds it. There's no formula or ratio like for every three Shows you must include one Tell. It's more a part of Pacing, controlling the heartbeat of your book. More often than not, a Beta reader will tell you about Pacing issues. Check that chapter or scene and see where your narrator can tell more, and you could show less. 

Have a great week!

Coming up: 
Dialogue Tags
Jay Groce
Robert Bevan

Monday, January 7, 2013

Show Versus Tell Part 1

Show vs Tell

Part 1: Show

The comments: "This feels unbelievable." Or "This part is eye-gougingly boring and distant." Or "I can't empathize."

What they mean: You might need to show, not tell something. 

You may have run across the phrase "Show, don't tell" or some variant. And you may have Googled it and found countless sites on why you need to do this. The reason can be boiled down to:  

Show helps your reader feel it. Tell helps your reader know it. 

Both have their places in your story. This is why I prefer the phrase "Show versus Tell," which validates both aspects, to "Show, don't tell," which implies telling is bad. 

In my experience tutoring and Beta-ing, the most confusing part of all this is how to tell whether an instance is showing or telling. To see the difference, I find it's easiest to turn a Tell into Show. 

Quick Fix: Find phrases that make a blanket statement about a person or place. Ask yourself (or your POV character): How do you know?

Then insert details into the answer. (Recall my Details post? Remember to make details specific and unique to your character/world.)

Let's slip into our serious pants. 

Awfully generic example: 

Jack was angry.

Ask yourself (or POV character): "How do you know?"

Because he hit the wall angrily. 

That's better. Omit (leave out) the highlighted part and you have a sentence that's a little more show, a little less tell. You can do better, though, because you can still ask: How do you know he hit the wall angrily?

Because he made his hand into a fist and punched the wall, leaving a dent in the plaster.

Much better. Can you still ask "How do you know he made his hand into a fist…?" No, this is already your narrator's or POV character's direct observation. Once you get the answer that starts with: "Because that's what he/she saw/observed," you've found your "showing" imagery. 

Now, omit the highlighted part and clean up that "no duh" phrase.

He made his hand into a fist and punched the wall, leaving a dent in the plaster. 

Almost there. Make it pop, make your writing stand out, by using details that are specific and unique to your world, your characters, your story. Punching the wall may not be appropriate for the President of the U.S. or for the king of a realm, for a lawyer, for a child, for a priest, for a teen fairy-hunter. Recall my post about Fey Hunter Jack? How would he show anger to his best friend, Priya?

Jack flung his transistor at the wall. It cracked the plaster but landed unharmed. He yanked the soda can rifle out of her grasp and slammed its butt against the transistor's blinking face, over and over, until the screen cracked and splattered black diodes onto his new green loafers.

Let's do another. 

Ben loved Linda.

Bam! That's about as telly as you can get. Ask: How do you know he loved her? 

Because he always did things for her, even though she never asked him to do that stuff. 

Yes, but how do you know? Give me proof!

Because he always gets up early, takes her car to the gas station, and fills it up on days she has to drive from San Francisco to Newport Beach.

Great. Omit the highlighted part and you have a decent showing instance. But this seems like a pretty big deal if you're mentioning this example and not another. Put me in the scene by using specific and unique details.

The voicemail icon was blinking on Linda's phone: a new message from Ben. She listened to it as she waited for the windshield to clear.

"Hey," said Ben. "Sorry I wasn't there when you left this morning. Got called in. I filled up your tank, though, ok? And checked your oil. You're gonna need an oil change soon. Maybe when you get back. Or if you have time in Newport, all right? And make sure you stop if you're tired. Before the Grapevine. There's some places you can stop that don't cost much. But past the Grapevine, you keep driving if you can. Those places don't look so good, all right? If you can make it for another half hour or so – if there's no traffic – you drive all the way to your grandma's ok?...Bye." 

We added a lot more words and omitted the word "love," but we've trickled in some key information to build their relationship to the world they live in, and to each other. 

What does that voicemail say about Ben? Notice how he keeps saying "ok?" and "all right?" And how he phrases things like "don't cost much" and "don't look so good"? What does that imply about his personality, his level of education? What does the word "your" before "grandma" imply about his relationship with Linda and her family? 

How would a teenager react to such a voicemail? How would an adult?

And what does your reaction to this voicemail say about you? 

Showing makes scenes emotionally interactive, which keeps a reader engaged and turning the page.

Let's do one more, narrative description, which is often a wasted opportunity to reveal themes and conflict. 

Vanessa's room was very neat and organized.

How do you know? 

Because the bed was made, the desk was free of clutter, paired shoes were arranged on shelves, and all clothes were hung in the closet. 

Can you still ask "How do you know?"
No, this is already direct observation. We can omit that highlighted part and use the sentence to show how neat the room is and it would be just fine. Should we settle for "just fine" though? (Correct answer is no. Also, it's a very passive sentence.) 

Let's improve it. Focus on one or two elements that can represent the entire room and add the specific and unique details we talked about. Show me more about whose room this is. 

I edged around Vanessa's bed, brushing my fingers across a blue sheet stretched so taut and flat across the top, my touch left no indentation. The clothes in her closet were grouped by type, subgrouped by color, further subgrouped by texture so that lowly cottons were segregated from sumptuous silks by insulating inches of merino wool. I tugged on sleeves, examined tags. Brands I'd only read and didn't have the courage to say aloud, afraid of mispronouncing them and revealing I had no place in her world: Marchesa, Burberry, Versace, Lanvin. 

Much better. Note what we've managed to trickle in: 

What type of person would make their bed this way and group clothes in their closet in such a manner? Who would wear these brands? 

We've even managed to inject some tension, some little bits of conflict. We can show how the POV character feels like an outsider in Vanessa's world by showing how the POV character feels this way in the Vanessa's room, a microcosm of the story's world.

"Showing" turns flat statements – "The room was very neat" or "He loved her" – into multifaceted, emotionally interactive scenes. 

Instead of you, the writer, telling the reader what to feel and think, you allow the reader to develop their own conclusions by showing a scene through a character's perspective. It can be thought of as emotion on the page (telling) versus emotion in the reader (showing).

Lastly, check your understanding. Which instances are show, and which are tell?

The battle was difficult. – Can you ask "How do you know?" and get a descriptive response? Yes. This is a Tell instance.

My mother was always strict with us. 

The warlord walked away in shame.

My hands shook as I stared at the bomb. 

"My mother was always strict with us," said Jack.

The journey through the mountains was long and difficult.

Learning how to navigate through star fields was long and difficult.

Next week, we'll look at the importance of Telling.
Happy writing,

Coming up:
More Show vs. Tell
Jay Groce
Dialogue Tags
Robert Bevan