Sunday, July 31, 2011

That Tricky Balance of Show and Tell in Your Writing--How Do You Work with It?

One of my favorite quotes about showing versus telling comes from Anton Chekhov, who wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”  This seems to sum it up.  Readers get emotionally engaged in writing that demonstrates rather than delivers.

Not sure you agree?  Think of a book you may have read recently.  Did you skim any of it, skip some sections?  Go back and look at those pages, and perhaps you'll notice that the author went into her head a bit, perhaps.  Maybe she decided it was a good time to get on a small soapbox and explain something.  You lost interest, as a reader.  That's because telling contains less emotional charge, so we're less involved in the images of the story.

Showing brings image to the page.  It's a demonstration of scene through specific details. Most books need to have more showing than telling nowadays, partly because of our fast-moving culture.  We have a shorter attention span.  Even movies are changing to adapt to the new ways our brains work. 

That's not to say that telling isn't important too.  Once something is framed on the page by shown details, a small bit of telling can deepen the meaning, the understanding a reader gets from the scene.

This week I've been teaching a retreat with 11 writers from all over the world.  We're at Madeline Island School of the Arts, a beautiful art school located on restored farm on one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior near Bayfield, Wisconsin.  During class this week we were reading an excerpt from William Trevor's Cheating at Canasta, a short story about a woman who has Alzheimer's.  In this scene, the woman is playing cards with her husband, and although she can't really play cards anymore, he loves her so much that he helps her win.  After a page of showing this sad and beautiful relationship they have, Trevor ends with a line of "telling" that always knocks my socks off:  "I cheated at Canasta, and she won."  Because the telling is framed by earlier shown detail, we totally get it. 

So while telling at its worst brings an almost intellectual assessment of what happened, and showing at its best relies instead on sensory detail (smells, sights, sounds), telling is important. Telling lets us back away from the moment, giving us brief perspective on what's been shown.  While showing places the reader squarely in the moment, telling gives distance.

The key to showing is to demonstrate. This means not interpreting the things you are placing in front of us.

Robert Olen Butler, author of many wonderful stories and novels and instructor at this writing at Florida State University’s MFA program, talks about this in his book From Where You Dream. To learn how to show better, I like to pass along these tips from Butler's book.  They help me deliver emotion in its purest form.

Most important:  don’t dilute your moment with interpretation.

Butler observed that emotion can be delivered to a reader (shown, versus told) generally in five ways. Here is my translation of his terms:

• what I am feeling inside my body (goosebumps on my arm, itchy foot, tight throat)

• what I am observing in your gestures and movements (tearing a small paper napkin into bits, jiggling foot)

• specific memory

• fear, anticipation, desire (projections into future)

• sense selectivity (during moments of extreme emotion, all but one sense goes away)

During the developing stage of book writing, whenever I need to change a scene to more “showing,” I will go through Butler’s list and ask myself how I can bring in one of these.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
This week, translate a passage that "tells" into one that "shows," using one of the above techniques. What happened?