Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Tell me this, to show me something else.

I have written before in this blog about the much touted expression among writers: Show, don’t tell! (Here and here.) It is repeated so often, and is (or seems to be) such a key concept, that I constantly revisit it all the time in my own mind.

Anton Chekhov probably never wrote precisely these oft quoted words: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ Nevertheless, this probably represents a valid distillation of what he expressed in several places, and of the way he tried to write. So how might we actually do what Chekhov suggests?

Consider this:

It was very hot, and the sun was shining brightly. Tom walked outside.

Here the author provides the reader with three pieces of information: (1) it’s hot; (2) the sun is bright; and (3) Tom goes outside. The action here is Tom’s walking outside; the rest sets the scene and provides the background. However, the same information could be conveyed to the reader within the context of the action, like this:

Outside, Tom blinked against the brightness of the sun, sweat beading on his forehead.

This is now told from Tom’s point of view. This conveys to the reader Tom’s experience of the bright sunlight and the heat. There is no external narrator—as in the first version—describing the scene ‘objectively’. The same information is conveyed, but in a more existential way. The reader is not, momentarily, lifted out of the story and provided with some ‘facts’, as in the first version. Rather, the reader experiences the reality as Tom does.

Note that this is not simply a difference between showing and telling. Both are actually telling. In the first version the reader is told that it’s hot and the sun is bright. In the second version the reader is told that Tom blinks and sweats. But that ‘information’—the relating of that experience—lets the reader know indirectly that outside, the sun is bright and it’s hot. The writer tells us that Tom is sweating to show us that it’s hot. Most importantly, rather than just giving us the facts, he conveys the effects of the heat and the light on Tom. This keeps us inside Tom’s world.

Sometimes as a writer we will want to set the scene, before plunging the reader into the heart of the action, back into the lives of the characters. Bear in mind, though, that at this moment the reader becomes an observer, rather than a participant. If that is the effect you want to achieve, that’s fine. But if you really want to immerse the reader in the story you are telling, you will try to hide yourself, as the writer, as much as possible. You can say, ‘The driveway was lined with frangipani trees’; or you can say, ‘Tom was overwhelmed by the scent of frangipani as he walked along the tree-lined driveway.’

Tell the readers one thing to show them something else.

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