Thursday, August 5, 2010

Show and Tell

How many times have you read or been told to “show, don’t tell?” A dozen times? A hundred? A thousand? Too many?

If you show, don’t you have to tell something of what the character is feeling, thinking, doing? How do you show what your character is thinking if you don’t give the reader some details? Your character is sitting on a park bench letting the rain run in rivulets down her back. If you leave it at that, the reader has no idea

  • why she’s sitting in the rain,
  • whether she’s delighted to feel the rain trickling down her back and pooling at the waistband of her slacks or
  • whether she’s utterly miserable and why

So, in my mind, you have to tell the reader something about what a character you’ve just introduced is going through for him to be able to understand the emotions you so masterfully showed. How else do you show the emotions of your character and have them make sense? Sometimes the reader needs more than facial expressions or hunched shoulders to know what’s going on. How can you show through a character’s facial features or body language what the details are? The reader will pick up on what’s going on through the lead up. Maybe, maybe not. Wouldn’t it be better to make sure your reader understands?

Won’t the critics then pounce on you for being too detailed? If your character is at a loss whether to wear the sexy red dress or the ubiquitous little black dress, would it be better to tell your reader about what’s going on in her head as she tries to decide which dress to wear and why it matters? Or would it be better to have the character hold each dress up to her chest several times with brows furrowed to show the effort she is making to make that decision? As both a writer and a reader, I understand the author knows this character much better than I. Some insight as to why this decision is so difficult would be appreciated. Is she having trouble deciding because she wants to look sexy for that new client with those bad-boy eyes or should she dress to impress her new boss and wear the black sheath? No wonder she’s having trouble deciding.

In real life, too little information can lead to misunderstandings and it can lead to even more misunderstandings in your fiction. Readers don’t like to be fooled. I remember reading a mystery a few years back and being sure I knew who the killer was because I’d mentally noted the clues the author handed out. When the killer was announced near the end of the book, I fairly shouted “No fair!” and flung the book across the room. The author had held back key details that would have allowed his readers to figure out the real killer. Was he trying to show rather than tell and couldn’t figure out how to show the key details? Maybe. Probably not. But you see what I mean, don’t you?

I’ll leave you with this. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, German-born American architect (1886-1969) said, “God is in the details.” As both a reader and a writer, I love the details. Don’t you?

No comments:

Post a Comment