Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bloody Show Not Bleeding Tell!

Elsewhere on the web I have been locked in an interminable argument which began when someone (a classic not-yet-been-published-writer decided to argue that the advice Show-not-Tell was an overused "trope", a "rule" and "rules-were-made-to-be-broken, blah-blah-blah.

My God, the number of failed students
(these types virtually always fail)
who want to break rules when they don't even understand them...

First, it ISN'T a rule.

It's the condensing of good advice from thousands of excellent practitioners, unfortunately into a trotted-out, oft-misunderstood, sound-byte.

The trouble is, for every person who says, "Show-Don't-Tell" I think no more than a third actually, really, truly, understand what it is

That's why I term the dichotomy "Seduction not Instruction"

It's a DIFFICULT subject, as is Theme or Premise.

Why do people think a teacher can blurt out in a minute. "Here, do this," and suddenly all her students will have "got it"?


It's subtle. It's not always obvious.

Exciting challenge?

Your cottage one day with a marvellous view?

Or just a dump, a symbol of rural decay?

Unfortunately, there are a few simplistic explanations of show-tell around, delivered by X, regurgitated by Y without thought. "Don't SAY, He was angry, SHOW ME he's angry. Show me the clenched fist, the red face, the raised voice blah-de-blah-de-blah.

In fact the classic angry-show, so cliched, calls attention like the worst of tell. It just looks amateurish. It's become stock and obvious and the mark, very often of a raw beginner.

X & Y mentioned above? I don't think they understand the problem.

I know, when starting out, I didn't REALLY get Show-Tell for YEARS. I kinda thought I did (that damn show-me-he's-angry thing again) but beyond that I just didn't internalise it.

So I wrote turgid, telly work.

I remember reading James Frey (not the million pieces James Frey but an earlier one) and in his book

How to Write a Damn Good Novel (Volume 1)

He wrote about one scene, mentioned in my "Seduction" article where, rather than TELL the reader that the Korean War Sergeant was callous he had him say, when asked what he was doing

"Jest eating chocolate and killing gooks."

I think that was the first time I even had a GLIMMER of the concept, and I'd started writing 30 years earlier, got serious two years earlier. (My apologies to anyone who had to suffer my early stuff!)

So, before I forget - if you are reading this, why not post to me what you think this means. Don't mention anger or angry. Don't mention sad or upset. Find some other hidden meaning or revealed emotion, and if you can show the same scene done badly, then the scene which EVOKES EMOTION through what is IMPLIED.

Over there, where the skin of my forehead is on many a brick wall, I've suggested reading Hemingway's "Hills With White Elephants" for a masterful exercise in the way not-telling causes a story to swell up with power, to resonate.

I also recommend Ernie's story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"  It's ostensibly about cowardice and refound guts but is much deeper, about sexual politics, sexual power.

Hemmers famously used his ICEBERG analogy, arguing that the writer needs to know about the iceberg but only talk about a couple of per-cent, the bit above the water.

The power, the weight, the "thing-ness" that-which-resonates comes from the awesome-underneath, the unsaid, the unseen.


Here is an exercise I give students. Remember this one, Sylvia? The Caravan?

A teacher can use a photograph or we can just say "imagine a yard outside the ranch-house". The specifics aren't important as long as we all have the same basic scene.

A photograph is best as everybody has the same starting point.

Students have to write a narrative, a man, or a woman coming out of the house, seeing the barn, chickens whatever, walking around, picking up a bucket, blah-blah.

From the perspective of NOW, without the extra I'm about to give you, the various things the man or woman does are "nothings". They are just butt-scratching, mundane, not-the-point-of-the-story.


They would be pointless, wasteful, distracting if there wasn't a hidden message

The extra I am now going to give you is that the person walking round the yard has just received a communication, a telegram, a phone call, seen a news-flash, whatever.

Each student has been given a DIFFERENT message and the message is SECRET.

Student A's message is that the man's son has been killed in action

Student B's message is that his kidnapped daughter has been found safe and well.

Student' C's message is that he DOESN'T have Cancer

Student D's message is the opposite. It's cancer, 3 months to live.

Student E? It's a man but his WIFE has cancer

Student F? It's a man and his wife has been given the all clear.

Student G. Has just heard his "dead" GI son is alive and well and coming home.

These are a bit similar, but you can design your own "secret".

It's cool to actually create telegrams and have the students draw one from a hat.

Now THINK. Think of the PATHETIC FALLACY, the idea that when your partner has just left you it RAINS and RAINS. (Well of course it does, God is out to get you.)

If you have just received terrible news, chances are you will see the dull, the bad, the poor, as you step outside. Your walk will ache, maybe you'll be slower, feel the bad knee. You'll see the DECAY, the dust. The chickens will annoy you. You'll wonder why the fuck did you ever think it was a good idea to build a farm?

But if you have received GREAT news, your step will be stronger, the light will be lighter, the old farm buildings will exude warmth, solidity, the wholesome aura of family and so on.

OK, so here is the deal. WITHOUT any reference to the contents of the telegram, can you, SOLELY from the way Tom sees his yard MAKE ME SENSE that the telegram is bad (or good)?

Can you maybe make me sense, not just the goodness or badness but something of the telegram's specifics?

Is she lonely? Is she happy or sad? Is she meeting a lover?

Now remember that the above is an exercise in, first off, "creating the ambience of"

Loss. Re-found Hope. Pride. Unbearable Pain. Wonder.

One of these.

A good writer, without ever slipping up or sneaking in words like "death", "decay", "loss" etc can just make us FEEL that something is wrong.

The farmer is just picking up buckets or fixing a fence. We are NOT describing the telegram, and yet what is in the telegram somehow PERVADES the scene, PERVADES the descriptions.

Now THAT is show.

Now imagine that we - the writers - now DO leak the contents of the telegram.

The reader has been steered, seduced, set up to believe the contents.

The bare words merely confirm what we already guessed. We might not know we have been manipulated but we were, and when "we read" the telegram we believe its contents, UTTERLY.

When everyone has written their piece (their knowledge colours the writing)...

but BEFORE they get to the bit that reveals the telegram's content, we all have to say whether the telegram is terrible news, joyous, or whatever.

This post covers maybe 1% of this difficult subject. Please consider responding and giving your views, exercise, etc. Please not I delete anonymous posts as I get a lot of spam.

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