Thursday, August 17, 2023

Scrivening Part 7: Show and Tell

 

Showing/Telling

Since the rise of movies followed by television, the common imagination has shifted from words to images, from logos to ikon. Narration is in disfavor. Show, we are told, don't tell. But we ought to be judicious about it. There are a variety of ways to show things.
1. Use evidence to support your claim. Compare...
Betsy was worried.
versus
Betsy fiddled with the bottles on the sideboard, casting glances over her shoulder at the door. Once, hearing footsteps in the hallway, she muffled the clinking of the bottles and held her breath until the footsteps continued on their way.
Don't tell us Betsy is worried, show her being worried. Make the Reader worry
also. As you can see, this may use a lot more word count; so...
1a. You don't have to show us everything.
Telling is useful for passing time or informing the Reader without belaboring the point. Showing is best for emotions, opinions and sensations. 
Telling is best done by having one of the characters think it.
Adam watched Betsy fuss with the bottles. The way she kept glancing toward the door, Adam thought she was worried about something. Should he be worried, too?
2. Replace abstract with concrete, and vague descriptions with specific sensory details   
Compare
Fanghsi said anxiously, “No Officer, you; so how you fly with birdies?” Her explanation did nothing to reassure him.  

versus
 
Fanghsi broke the silence. “No Officer, you; so how you fly with birdies?” Anxiety oozed from him like juice squeezed from a melon. Her explanation that the bodyguards were a gift from her “particular friend” did nothing to reassure him, and he muttered something about waving bright colors at bees.
-- In the Belly of the Whale (Flynn)
 
3. Avoid too much body language.
Mary opened her eyes and looked at the clock. Her heart nearly leapt out of her chest. The baby had slept nearly eight hours. But little Jane never slept more than four hours at a time. Something must be wrong. 
Not again. Her stomach rolled over when she remembered the last time a child of hers had slept too long.
That's very showy, but with the leaping hearts and rolling stomachs, it is as if the whole universe were contained in Mary's body. Compare that to...
Mary opened her eyes and squinted in the sunshine streaming in through the open window. She stretched, feeling more relaxed than she had since... 
She sat up and looked at the clock. It was after eight. Little Jane had slept through the night. For the first time. 
Just like Billy. 
Mary flipped the covers back and stood. She snatched her robe from the back of the chair and slipped it on. She wouldn't think about Billy. The doctor said it wouldn't happen again. The odds against it were astronomical. 
Billy had been nearly six weeks old. Jane was almost two months. It was different this time. It had to be.
 -- Diane Callahan, Quotidian Writer, citing editor Robin Patchen
Thoughts cause emotions which cause actions, as any good Aristotelian would know. Show the thought and show the act, let the Reader deduce the emotion from these. 
4. Show emotion through dialogue

In the following excerpt, the harper and the scarred man are discussing a point in a story the latter has been telling her. As usual, I see things I would have done differently today, but the dialogue does show the clash of personalities

"...But, come, drink!”  He raises his uisce bowl on high.  “Drink to the quest!”
The harper disagrees.  “The quest itself means nothing.  The heart of the matter is Jason – and Medea – not the Fleece.  The Argonauts could have sought anything, and their fates would have been the same.”
The scarred man strikes the table top with his flat, and the bowls and the tableware, and a few nearby drinkers, jump a little.  “No!  What you seek determines how you fail.  Had Jason sought a Tin Whistle or an Aluminum Coffee Pot instead of a Golden Fleece, the failure would have run quite differently.”  

“More musically in the first case,” the harper allows, “and with greater alertness in the second.  But, must it always end in failure?"

“Always.”  

“Your cynicism extracts a price.  You can never know the thing in itself, because you always look past it for a hidden reality.  I would think all failures alike.  Coffee Pot or Golden Fleece, failure means you haven’t obtained what you sought.” 
“No,” the scarred man mocks her.  “Each failure is inevitably, enormously different from all the others.  Each man who seeks does so for a different reason, and so can fail in a different way.  Hercules failed in the quest for the Fleece; but his failure was of a different sort than Jason.”  

“Jason secured the fleece,” the harper points out.

“That was his failure.”

--  Flynn, The January Dancer

 

 A second reason for the ascendancy of pictures over words is that not only has the imagination of Western readers become primarily visual -- some pages of graphic "novels" may contain no words at all -- but also because much of what once needed description no longer does. Nineteenth century novels featured lush descriptions of places because their readers had likely never sen them. Nowadays, most have seen them on TV or movies that little telling is needed to evoke the place. 

The old word-oriuented media required time. Reading wants silence and logical skills. But the visual iconic media employs brevity, speed, change, urgency, variety and feelings. Compare older movies or even TV show with newer ones, and note hoe scenes have become quicker and sometimes exist only to deliver a couple of lines of snappy dialogue. The writer today faces the challenge of imitating the 'shows' without sacrificing the logic.

 


1 comment:

  1. I note that not all showing must be in a form that could even be achieved in cinematic form:

    Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:

    “ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH HALL.

    “Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester, by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, November 5, 1789; Mary, born November 20, 1791.”

    Precisely such had the paragraph originally stood from the printer’s hands; but Sir Walter had improved it by adding, for the information of himself and his family, these words, after the date of Mary’s birth—“Married, December 16, 1810, Charles, son and heir of Charles Musgrove, Esq. of Uppercross, in the county of Somerset,” and by inserting most accurately the day of the month on which he had lost his wife.

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