Sunday, July 29, 2012
Is "Show, Don't Tell" Overrated?
James Scott Bell
There's a meme developing regarding one of the oldest of fiction writing commandments: Show, don’t tell. Specifically, that this may be an overrated bit of advice. What's wrong with telling (straight narration) a great deal of a story in the author’s voice?
It's worth talking about.
Here is an excerpt from a thriller which begins in the trenches of WWI. After a descriptive opening paragraph that introduces us to the “cordite-clouded sky” and the lead character, Dr. William T. Majors, Jr., we get this:
A brilliant mathematician, Majors was a scholar and a gentlemen completely out of his affluent Long Island element. Against reasonable odds or definable logic, he was also a private in the U.S. Army and at present trapped in a gash of dangerous dirt between France and Germany known as the Western Front.
That is narrative telling, and set-up. Well, why not? It gets the job done, doesn’t it?
But wouldn’t we rather be in the head of the character, and let the details become known naturally as we go along? Is there a need to explain all this up front? Does it deepen our involvement, distance it, or matter not at all?
I have a little guideline I call Act first, explain later. I have never read the opening of a published book yet that did not benefit from this guideline, or suffer from its non-use.
Side note: I was talking to a friend recently who is a voracious reader (and was a history major in college). I brought up a particularly popular series of historical novels and he went, “Ugh! It takes SO LONG to get going!” Then he mentioned the James Clavell classic, Shogun. “He gives a lot of background,” my friend said, “but he does it with action. I like that much better.” I try to listen to readers.
Back to the thriller. We are now introduced to a second character, Majors’ childhood friend, John Taylor. They enlisted together. They are in the trench, talking as the sky explodes. “Tell me again,” Taylor says, “what the hell we are doing here?”
Both men were scared, though they tried not to show it.
They winced, recoiling again from the thundering bombardment now under way to destroy fortifications and trench systems along a twenty-mile front from Bois d’Avoncourt to Étan.
Okay, that is a pull back from a scene (when there’s dialogue, you’ve got a scene by default) to narrative description. The author is telling us what both men felt, so it’s author voice (and therefore Omniscient POV) by default.
Are we okay with that? Or would it not be better to stay within the POV of Majors, his hands shaking, the bile of fear rising in his throat? (Note: Omniscient POV is out of favor these days.)
A novel works best (even, I am tempted to add, only) when it creates emotion in the reader. One of the reasons for show, don’t tell is to do that very thing. And it ought to start happening on page one.
A few lines down (we’re on page 2 now), Majors has a tender moment:
Majors touched his heart, then pulled a photo of Jane from his tunic’s breast pocket. He could make out her features in the sudden glare of a bomb’s blast. He loved her deeply and felt this was probably his last chance to look upon her face.
More telling. But does He loved her deeply capture the feeling? Or would it have been better to show his finger gently tracing her features as his heart pounds something that sounds like a dirge? Telling us what an emotion is, rather than creating it in us, wastes valuable front-end real estate in a book.
Now a page of backstory follows. It begins:
Even more than Taylor, Majors had been born and raised in privilege, with every advantage of wealth and sophistication his parents could give him. Majors’ father, the man he’d been named after, was a successful ship line attorney and investment banker. Majors’ French mother had always been a tender caregiver to her son. She was a consummate homemaker and devoted wife . . .
We have left the immediacy of the action and exploding sky for a discursive on background. Now, I believe some backstory is all right in an opening chapter. But I like to keep it brief and firmly grounded in a character’s head and emotions, e.g., He longed to be back in his father’s study, helping him research another brief for the shipping lines he represented, waiting for mother to bring the afternoon tea.
Is there ever a time to just “tell” part of the story? Yes, when you want to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time, e.g., from one location to another.
Otherwise, choose the more intimate way, one character’s immediate POV, and create emotions rather than telling us about them.
There’s even a book that will help you in this regard, Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions.
So what do you think? Is “show, don’t tell” overrated? Or is it the mark of the author who knows exactly how to pull readers in?