Monday, May 25, 2009

Showing, Not Telling, and Not Trusting

Any writer who has serious ambitions about writing wants feedback on their work. I have never heard of anyone who wrote a perfect manuscript and sold it without ever showing it to anyone for some kind of critique. It's just a part of the process; as writers, it is impossible for us to read our work the way a normal reader is going to. We're too close to the story and we know too much about the characters and the background. We don't spot inconsistencies, we miss gaps in logic, darlings wink at us and bat their eyelashes and we follow them wherever they might lead, even if they do run the plot right off the rails. Constructive criticism and feedback do not indicate that you failed as a writer, just that you are human.

But constructive feedback, though very necessary, can be hard to take. We all have certain things that we hate hearing. Perhaps my least favorite piece of feedback to receive is "show; don't tell". I hate that little phrase, probably more than any other phrase in the English language. And not just because I hear it so often I feel I should know better by now. For a long time I hated it because I simply didn't understand what it meant. Now I hate it because hearing it means that I have, on some level, failed my potential readers by not trusting them.

Most of the time when I slip up and start telling rather than showing, I can usually track the cause back to my not trusting the reader. There is an emotion or feeling or thought that the reader simple MUST understand, but I don't trust them to puzzle it out on their own. So instead of saying "Nikki slumped in her chair at the computer and sighed, one hand massaging the back of her neck as she glared at the blinking cursor until the page of text faded to black and random ribbons of color prevented the image from burning into the screen", I say "Nikki was frustrated because she couldn't think of a good example for showing instead of telling".

Now somewhere in the back of my mind, the lessons of Strunk and White that were beaten into me in high school cry out "OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS!" and insist that the second sentence, conveying the same idea in far fewer words, must be better. But the key word in that sage pearl of wisdom is needless. You should almost always omit needless words (and I threw that example out there pretty quickly and tend to over-write, so I'm sure both sentences are full to bursting with needless words), but that doesn't mean shorter is better. If it did, I have no doubt that the rule I remember from Elements of Style would be "Shorter is better" rather than "Omit needless words". The second sentence is shorter, but the first sentence shows what's really going on. The second sentence is just me yanking the reader out of the story and telling them what's happening.

("Omit needless words", incidentally, is one of only two things I remember from my study of Elements of Style. The other is the proper usage of the words "nauseous" and "nauseated" because I thought the advice "unless you truly feel you have that effect on people, you should not say you're 'nauseous'" was amusing.)

1 comment:

Darlene C. Goodman said...

I smiled at your example of showing. :)