Monday, May 22, 2017

Why I’m Embracing ‘Telling’ Again


Show don’t tell is actually fairly ambiguous in its current form. I see authors preaching its merits to only show examples that directly contradict the definition of another writer. Their ‘showing’ is just a more complex version of ‘telling’ by some’s interpretation.

What is “He erupted like a volcano”? Is it showing because you needed to come to the conclusion of his mood rather than being told? Or is it telling because it’s not actually a visual?

In the best workshop I’ve taken, through his ideas of what 'showing' is I found an easy way to force myself out my box and off my crutches. It really helped to create more interesting ambiance. The teacher said that showing was to tell a story in real time. It was an image you could see before you. Telling was more abstract, information that was being delivered without need for interpretation.

Regardless of how you felt about show don’t tell, this definition really forced me to think about the different ways I could say something.

I believe in “showing.” I believe in letting the audience come to its own conclusions. I believe in delivering information through examples and images. It’s not bad advice.

But many people seem to claim that showing is more important than telling, that you should always try to show with only the rarest of exceptions. It’s not that I outright listened to them, of course, never really agreeing with it entirely, but I did find myself lamenting any time I went through narration.

One of my recent manuscripts, The Former Self, has a playful beginning that is more voice than image. Now I’ve told you guys about how this is a common problem for me—I hope to insert better visuals into my writing rather than being contingent on character—and I wrote it with the intention of coming back and fixing it. I never presume the way my book begins is the way it’s going to be by the end. I prefer to understand what the story is about and having fun before trying to make it interesting for other people, so typically I do a new version around draft two or three. Or many new versions.

It’s a backstory. The entire manuscript toys with making the first person P.O.V. more meta—I purposefully remind the audience that Rhea is the one telling her story; we are not watching events as they unfold:

“It’s a long story. One I am not too clear about anyway, so bear with me. I’ve asked, of course, a lot of these questions, but with Iden it’s important to say it in the right way. He won’t lie to me, but he is still just as resistant to the past as ever. He’ll never elaborate on his own. I always have to understand what I don’t understand, or I’ll be left confused. If that makes sense.”

The book goes from first to third. I narrate her past. I make jokes. I toy with internal monologues in contrast to what’s actually spoken. I had fun with it, “breaking” many rules that I knew people had their hang-ups on. That’s how I write all my first drafts, in fact, without worrying too much about pedantic criticism. Or at least try to, not always successfully. Most rules are contextual and I prefer to see if it worked or if it didn’t after putting it down on paper.

But the problem is knowing if it was actually successful. For one thing, just because you now have the context doesn’t mean that all your critique partners will consider that context. People love to staunchly declare, “NEVER do that!” without being able to tell you the consequences. Of course, I’ve found, over time, that the less experienced someone is, the less secure about their abilities, the more likely they are to be absolute in these things, while people who truly know what they’re doing are more open-minded, but that's not an end all. When I first meet someone, I tend to assume their opinions are true for them, and therefore meaningful. Too early and it's hard to gauge if they're just closed-minded or if they're saying something you don't want to hear.

Sometimes, your rule breaking really didn’t work. It just didn’t. Even if you are open to prologues, this one still sucks. Telling the difference between an open minded person who just didn’t like what you’ve done and a closed minded person who doesn’t want to like what you’ve done isn’t always easy.

For the last few years, I’ve struggled with this. There have been times when someone uncompromisingly insisted on something that seemed so petty and so irrelevant, but I eventually adhered to and found my life easier. There have also been times where someone gave me a completely misleading suggestion and have caused problems or added on to my workload. Most times, it’s a little bit of both.

The problem with writing free ranged first and considering your readers second is that you may not trust you know what your readers will think, even after you have something concrete to look at. I certainly don’t. I don’t always see eye to eye with the public and what works in literature.

Recently, two things happened: I do tend to agree with most of my critique partners on big picture issues and haven’t been completely blown away by a criticism in a long time, so it’s not as though I can’t trust my own tastes.

Two, while in Ireland, I couldn’t get my library ebook to download and ended up buying and reading 1984 in the three seconds my cousin allotted for me to run into a bookstore. I found Orwell’s writing style fantastic, not mind-numbingly simplistic, a good turn-a-phrase here and there, some creative prose, but not dense or condescending either. More to the point, the book has a great combination of telling with showing, setting up the world quickly with good visuals, and just all around conveyed information in a way that worked for me.

I’ve read through the beginning of The Former Self several times and the first series of narration, this backstory told and not shown, was always easy and fun to get through. In that sense, it is successful.

I realized, sort of surprisingly, how much I had internalized the insistence that everything needs to be shown. But in fact, as long as it’s interesting, it doesn’t matter if you tell parts and pieces. Having a good mix, like 1984 does can be extremely successful.

I've seen books like Around the World in 80 Days that 'tell' to the point of tears. I've criticized novels (and myself) for conveying information mostly through talking heads. I loved the prose created from a class all about showing, and pushing myself to do so has come up with some beautiful pieces. On the other hand, telling isn't all bad either, and sometimes you got to give into your voice.



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