Sunday, September 18, 2011

Show, Don't Tell: Another Writing Conundrum

How many times have you heard wise drama sages and story gurus proclaim, “Show, don’t tell!” There are many transgressions one may commit as a novelist or screenwriter, but none will bring down the hammer of criticism as hard and fast as telling and not showing. So, don’t do that, we are told. This is bad writing, and who wants to be a bad writer? BAAAAAAAD WRITER!

On the surface this sounds like excellent advice. In a visual writing medium
(I contend all writing is visual), like screenwriting, it makes good sense to show as much as you can. Good sense, like “eat your peas,” or “after eating your peas, wait a half an hour before going into the water.” And, everyone understands what showing vs. telling means, right? It means character through action; your plot is what your characters do, not what they think inside their heads. You “see” the story unfold directly in real time, story time; not hear about it second hand or have it handed to you through some literary/cinematic device. You, as the audience, experience the story through your perceptions directly, as the characters do the “showing” through their actions, thus demonstrating actively what they are about.

Simple. Basic. Everybody knows this. End of the discussion. Well no, not exactly. Here’s the problem with “show don’t tell”: it’s not either-or; it’s both. In film, TV, and book writing the point is not to avoid telling, it’s about knowing when to do one vs. the other. There are times when it is correct to tell and times it is incorrect. What do I mean?

Consider the story of the lowly kung fu student who is taken under the wing of the crusty, yet compassionate priest for training. He comes to the master a young boy and leaves a teenage killing machine. His transformation from child to killer takes years. If you showed this in a literal way your script would take you fifteen years to write. You can’t show this, you have to tell it. The main tool used in film for telling is the montage. In half a page you can tell what happens to this kid, through exclusion, and then pick the story up when he’s at the right age. The fact is, screenwriters tell all the time by making story choices to edit out, or not, specific scene material. Whenever you as a writer edit down a scene, exclude exposition, or expand a scene with exposition you are telling your story. Anything that breaks the dramatic time line of the story immediately shifts the mode of storytelling (and writing) from the dramatic to the narrative.

What is the difference between dramatic vs. narrative storytelling (this is part of understanding the "show, don't tell" conundrum)? Narrative storytelling has a narrator; someone telling or describing to the audience what is/has/or will be happening. Certainly, the most blatant form of narrative storytelling in film is the literal narrator. Beyond the montage, a more subtle form of this can be found in scene transitions: cut to, dissolve, smash cut, etc. These are all forms of narration. When a scene transitions from one location to another in a non-linear way, some anonymous narrator is choosing for the audience where they leave the story and where they will reenter. This edit suddenly leaves things open to the imagination (what happened during that dissolve?) and while the viewer is not seeing anything dramatic unfold, they are, nonetheless, fully engaged in the telling of the story. Essentially, film editing is narration.

In contrast, dramatic storytelling is scene level action that happens in real-time, while an audience watches. The audience sees events directly unfold with no breaks in space or time. In addition, these events are filtered by the audience through their perceptions, not through those of a narrator. Using our teenage killer example, each scene where the audience watches him breaking boards, fighting opponents, etc. are all real-time events observable and interpretable by the viewers themselves.

Appreciating the distinctions between these two modes of storytelling, perhaps you can see how declaring “show, don’t tell” has little or no value. As a writer you could not effectively narrate the kung fu story without dramatically showing action, anymore than you could only show action without narrating some information to the audience. The story needs both these methods to properly tell the story. Knowing how much of one vs. how little of another to use is the craft and art of screenwriting.

My personal feeling is all of the above applies to novel writing and narrative nonfiction as well. You have more leeway and fewer constraints in these forms, because screenwriting is inherently claustrophobic and burdened with limits (page length, screenplay language, IQ of the producers, etc.), but the same principles should apply. Good commercial pop-fiction like Caroline Leavitt, Masha Hamilton, Steven King, Orson Scott Card, J.D. Robb, and others all show and tell their work and it comes off visually for the reader. They write very cinematically, and literately as well, because they “get” that it isn’t about following some stupid rule or mantra dictated to them by the writing gurus, they write visually because they understand the issue is about balance and they walk the tightrope of showing and telling like a flying Wallenda (famous high wire circus family—look them up!).

So, I’m telling you, the next time somebody lectures you to “show, don’t tell,” show them to the door and tell them to get lost.

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