Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Show Don't Tell", You're a Jerk

I can't be the only one whose head goes whirling when I hear that stupid phrase. "Show don't tell"? What the hell does that mean? To the writers who have been studying this stuff for a while, we know it means to convey our ideas through the senses rather than outright saying "Miyoko clutched the throttles." But the phrase "Show don't tell" itself is telling, and doesn't teach us a damn thing. So here's the deal: instead of telling what is telling and what is showing and blahblahblah, I'm going to show you how to put the reader in the moment, and how we bring our writing to life.

The five senses: touch, taste, hear, smell, and sight. This is our arsenal for deeper writing, but know what? I'm adding a sixth. Emotion. Instead of focusing on what the character is doing, turn the reader's attention to why they're doing it. In my last vlog-blog, I gave the example of the ex-outlaw with the black hat. I could've very well have gone with something like this:

"So what do you say, Al? It ain't a big herd, and those cowpokes won't put up much of a fight. Most of them are as scrawny as that boy you got there." Gene flashed a yellow toothed grin at Tim, and that ticked him off enough to want hit him. Alan wasn't paying no attention. He got out of his rocking chair and grabbed his old, black hat off of the mantle, and said, "Let's ride!"

(For you folks just tuning in, here's the original: "So what do you say, Al? It ain't a big herd, and those cowpokes won't put up much of a fight. Most of them are as scrawny as that boy you've got there." Gene flashed his yellow toothed grin at Tim, and if he could, Tim would knock them teeth right out. But all that'd do would make Alan mad, except Alan wasn't paying no attention to him, or to Gene. His eyes were on the shelf atop the fireplace—on the black hat he set there long before Tim was born, when his outlaw days were done. 

Alan's rocking chair gave a tired groan as he got out of it. He stepped up to the fireplace, reached for the hat, and Tim knew it was a done deal. The moment he put that hat on, Alan was an outlaw again.)

So why didn't I write it short and sweet? It would've been great for keeping my word count down, and it got the point across. The thing is, readers don't read stories to be told a series of events (no matter how interesting those events are) They read stories to immerse themselves in worlds outside of their own. They want an emotional connection, which we express through telling the story, rather than stating what's going on in it. Just like I mentioned in my previous vlog-blogs, everything we have in our story—every prop, every scene, etc.—has to have meaning behind it. The reader wants to feel the same emotional impact to (whatever's going on) that the character is feeling.

Going back to that "Miyoko clutched the throttles" thing. If I were to state Miyoko getting into the cockpit, clutching the throttles, and so on, that'd be those series of events I was talking about. It's cool as hell that she's about to save Tokyo or whatever, but the problem is, I'm missing out on an enormous part of that cool factor. I neglected the strong emotional sense of anxiety, suspense, and/or excitement before going into battle. Instead, let's try this:

The hatch spun shut before she could buckle all of the way in. Was the air getting thinner? Her chest was so tight, she could barely swallow a breath. She might die today. They said she was ready, but she really might die.

"Ten seconds to lift off."

There was no going back now. Miyoko clutched the throttles. She could do this. She could win.

Wait. What? "Miyoko clutched the throttles." That is the exact line I used as the "telling" example. Except it's not. We know what's going on in Miyoko now. We know how nervous she is, how sure she is that she's done for. When she grabs the throttles, I'm no longer stating what she's doing for the sake of putting that picture in the reader's head. Now, I'm expressing her swallowing her fears and pressing onward. I'm showing the character's strong will, and I'm setting up the story to move forward. As an added bonus, I'm putting the image of the cockpit in the reader's head. I've knocked out all of the details I need to convey with one simple line, and I did it with context clues.

Okay, if you've read any of my other blogs, you know I bring up context clues all of the time. The reason for that is because a story isn't a visual thing. The reader has to build it in their mind, but it's hard to build a mental image if we don't know where the hell we are. However, stating "this is here, that is there," is boring. I want these things worked into the story with only as much detail as is needed. Above, I mentioned that Miyoko grabbed the throttles. Automatically, we can assume there are two throttles, she's using both of her hands, and because of the way cockpits are generally built, the throttles are on either side of her. We also know she's sitting down, because I mentioned her buckling in. If I had to bet a thousand bucks on it, I'd say you probably imagined what her seat looked like, too. In those passages, I didn't mention that she was in a cockpit, but if you've read the story up to that point, you know she pilots a giant robot. I never have to mention anything about a cockpit unless it's important to the story, because the reader can already assume it's there.

As a reader, the advantage of novels over movies is you can build and feel them. You can customize chairs and the sounds of chittering birds. You can feel the warmth of a fire, taste the the sweetness of chocolate, and breathe in the fragrant stench of a herd of cattle (didn't see that one coming, did you?) But to create those feelings, there has to be reason behind them, and you have to let the reader build these sensations for themselves. Focus on the story, not the details, or you're not showing your reader anything, and they hate that as much as I hate the stupid phrase, "show don't tell"...well, almost.

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