Black Holes and Revelations: Show Don’t Tell Revisited

In yesterday’s Garbage Day post, I mentioned a new realization regarding showing versus telling, a grand epiphany that helped to ease my pen, and I thought that I’d like to flesh that out some today, take the opportunity to work through my thoughts on the whole subject, so bear with me. This entry is just as much about learning myself as sharing something.

Saturday night, as I was working on the journal section for Entanglements, which features Carla as the protagonist, I saw that having the key supporting character, Samartha, behave in a certain fashion was strengthening the emotions between the two. The problem was that I was continued to add on Carla’s observations of these behaviors and her interpretations of those actions. The behaviors were so strong in painting a picture of Samartha’s inner world that I felt the interpretations were cheapening what the reader might gain from those behaviors. So I started trimming interpretations.

At the time I thought I might be taking a risk in muddying communication with the reader, but upon re-reading, I was blown away. Samartha’s intentions became murkier, yes, but that added to the overall tension of the scene. While giving interpretations might be completely in character for Carla, it  also forms an obstacle to clear communication with the reader. I needed to allow breathing room and afford the reader some space for his or her own interpretation of Samartha and his actions. These interpretations may or may not be borne out by what comes later, but what was important was to allow room for that and stop trying so hard to control how the reader interacts with the story.

Now, some of this concept – cutting out a character’s take – wasn’t entirely new to me or particularly noteworthy. I did the same thing with a book back in the late 90s in order to streamline the prose. What was new and what I’m focusing on here was the idea of leaving his actions open to more interpretation on the reader’s part.

I do think this comes with some important caveats. I think there are some times when it’s okay to offer a protagonist’s internal take on something. I’m imagining a high-stress situation where the plot is motoring along and things are more defined. A target character’s actions might be ambivalent but a certain take on those actions are essential to moving the plot forward. In such a scenario, it might be a little more acceptable to take a second and offer the protagonist’s take, gently nudging the reader with a hint of something that might be coming. The optimal solution in such a situation would, of course, to reveal these intentions through the actions and speech of the character in question, but sometimes a high-tension plot can handcuff both the writer and the characters, making such a choice impractical if not downright impossible.

But when you’re talking about character building, especially earlier in the book, it seems to be the better idea to deny as much of the protagonist’s interpretation as possible. The biggest barrier to getting this, for me, was that this is actually counter to how most people think. Most of our opinions are formed about people pretty much upfront, during our first handful of interactions with that person, so it would make sense from a more realistic standpoint to offer that information. The thing is that the protagonist offering his or her interpretation of the target character’s actions may deny the reader the opportunity to form their own interpretations of the actions upfront. In effect, this turns the reader into an invisible character, processing the information that’s given without comment and working with the writer to build an effective narrative in his or her head. The essence of the artistic process.

So what does all this mean? It means that I was creating a layer between the reader and the story that just didn’t need to be there. Yes, it’s her journal. Yes, somebody writing in their journal might do that sort of thing, but she’s also an experienced writer, so she would be a little bit wiser to this concept, and, well, it isn’t a real journal, meaning that it’s okay to have a bit of artifice. I mean, some of the conventions of dialogue are artificial, but everyone understands the conventions enough that it comes off as natural. Seen through this lens, removing Carla’s interpretations is effectively the equivalent of removing “uhms” and “ahs” from someone’s speech (though those can be used effectively – another time for that).

All of this was part of my epiphany. For a long time, I thought “Show don’tTell” just made for a more compelling tale, but hadn’t emotionally grasped why. I just knew the maxim, like someone who can ape the words of a language but doesn’t entirely understand it. I finally got it on Saturday night, when I saw how it removes the divide between the story itself and the reader. The author and the protagonist telling the story get out of the way and let things breathe, allowing the artistic process to move forward.

That made me look more critically at some of the books that I read, and I’m realizing that almost all of the books that I prefer do just that: they remove the layer. They don’t impose the character’s point of view (unless that’s the central function of the story – American Psycho is a great example of this). They don’t get locked up in so much florid language. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate florid language, especially as an exercise in and of itself. As a writer, I can look at it and say “wow, that’s some really great writing”, but the biggest piece of the puzzle is the question of what it adds to the story. Often, not much.

So now I’m going back through Entanglements and trimming excess fat, looking for those little moments. Once Carla’s character is established, I don’t need to share her take on everything that happens – that’s up to the reader, our invisible character.

I share this not just as a learning experience but as an alternative viewpoint for writers who were in my boat and not completely grasping the concept. I’ve read writing book after writing book, and none put the concept in these terms. It was never explained to me that telling isn’t just lazy or short-hand (both things that I read or was taught), it’s putting an artificial barrier between the reader and the story, akin to putting a window between the reader and the story. Sure, they can see what’s going on, but they can never be a part of it.

You may not always be able to remove that window, and hell, sometimes you might not want to do that – there are times you need character reactions – but I’m realizing that the best time and place for that is later in the book, while allowing for pacing and not slowing things down at critical points. All of it should be in the service of communicating with your reader, not just sticking to timeworn tips about the proper way to write.

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