POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 4: moving point of view and other stories
16 Questions to ask a Critique (and some to ask about a critiquer)

Are you Showing too much?

Over on her excellent blog, The Elephant in the Writing Room, Sally Zigmond's been talking about Showing and Telling. And as well as flattering the Itch by linking to my own post about it, she makes a very good point that trying to Show often leads writers into endless, endless details about missing the alarm-clock switch, and scrambling out of bed and tripping over the dog and dropping things and running out of breath and tumbling onto the train and feeling sweaty when shaking the MD's hand.... and all to Show what could be told: John arrived at the office late, hot and flustered.

Undoubtedly, lots of beginner writers do this - and lots of more experienced writers find in revision that they have done it too, and cut a lot of it. So it's obvious that this kind of too-much-stuff comes naturally to many of us. But I have heard aspiring writers say "showing takes longer", and I don't think it's necessarily true, as the examples in my post about Showing and Telling prove. In other words, I'm not sure that it's fair to blame Showing, in itself, for the problem of Too Much Stuff. I think it comes from various, very natural, aspects of the process.

Writing to find out what you're really trying to say. If you're a Cutter, as a writer, then it's by putting words on the page that you find out which are the words you really need, and which you don't. You just have to remember, when revising, that you need to dust down each sentence to see which ones are really earning their keep.

Leaving in the scaffolding. This is a slightly different matter which I explored in The Common Scaffold. Because we all imagine, as well as think, by writing - by asking our imagination to supply the next word - these words came about as part of you having to imagine John's journey from being asleep to the MD's office. Which, again, is fine; it's process writing. Now it's time to decide which bits the reader needs, to get them from asleep to the MD's office, given the structure and pace and plot of the chapter, and of the book as a whole.

Thinking that Detail means lots of small stuff which adds up. What it should mean - what you should be thinking in terms of - is a few things that are particular: particular in the sense of particular to this person, this place, this time, this moment. Crudely, They met at the big tree isn't as Showy, because it isn't as particularised, as They kissed under the rotting willow, or They fought beside the sapling oak. (Although, of course, sometimes, They met at the big tree will be exactly what you want...)

Thinking that Showing means Showing Everything. It doesn't. It doesn't take a paragraph of detail to evoke the room of an old, paralysed Dowager Duchess, or the bear-pit of a bedroom shared by two brothers who hate each other. Indeed, it's quite likely that you don't have to write what you may think of as "description of the setting", at all. It's almost always stronger - and all you need - to evoke a setting in terms of the character in action within it.

So if you find that as soon as you stop summarising (Telling, Informing) and start detailing (Showing, Evoking) the wordcount starts to get out of hand and the story slows down, I'd suggest that you go back to summarising, but work hard at being Show-y, in the smallest space.

So, of the fifteen things that happen to John to get him flustered, which is the most telling? Which has the strongest sensory presence - toothpaste down the front of your clean shirt, or skiddy sand on the bathroom floor, or the bashed elbow? Which is most John-ish of the misbehaving objects he interacts with; the 1970s Star Wars alarm clock he bashes, or the antique silk prayer mat he trips over? Of all his actions from bed to boardroom, which is the most characteristic of him - still getting coffee on the way - or uncharacteristic - spilling it?

Mind you, a very common side effect of developing your ear/eye for evocative words is to use too many of them: to over-write. Even when you're Showing in this very economical, less-is-more sort of way, you still need to give each evocative word some space of plainness round them, so their evocation has room to work. And of course, you may still decide that what the story needs here is still a straightforward bit of Informing, in which case go for it. But can I suggest that you're nonetheless firm with your first draft version of: John overslept and woke up late so he arrived at the office upset. In revision, see if it wouldn't be better as: John slept through the alarm, and scuttled to work in a fluster. Why not? Fluster is a good, strong word, after all, and so are alarm, and scuttle. And it'll even keep the creative writing fascists happy, because there's not an adjective or an adverb to be seen (at least not of the sort the CW fascisti disapprove of: 'through' is an adverb here).

Comments

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Sally Zigmond

Than you. You've taken my thoughts and carried them further than ever could. There's far more to this aspect of writing than some pundits would have us believe. Some examples I've read of 'how to turn tell into show' are often worse than what they purport to improve.

Emma Darwin

Sally, you're welcome - and many thanks for starting the topic off over on The Elephant.

"Some examples I've read of 'how to turn tell into show' are often worse than what they purport to improve."

So true. I actually googled "showing and telling" when I was writing my original S&T post, and was utterly horrified by what was out there on blogs which thought they were peddling sage advice...

DeniseB

Thank you both for this exposition on showing and telling. I think it has become a mantra to throw out in writing groups when critiqueing, sometimes without thinking about whether it is always right.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Denise. As ever, it can be useful to have a quick reference for this whole business: I can say to a student, "It's a bit Tell-y", and they'll know what I mean and we can go on from there. But it's "show don't tell" which makes me so furious - one of the many things to blame Strunk and White for... though you could also blame all the writers and editors and teachers who don't distinguish between creative writing and journalism/non-fiction, when selling/recommending such books.

It's a good example of how advice which appears to be plain and simple is actually deeply prescriptive, and thus distorts the truth. Aphorisms are usually lazy thinking...

Paula Martin

Excellent article about the showing v telling advice! Sometimes you simply need to 'tell'!

Emma Darwin

Indeed you do, Paula! Glad you like the article.

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