Thursday, June 28, 2012

Abbott on "Show, Don't Tell"

Over at her blog, Patti Abbott (Monkey Justice) discusses the classic writing tip of "show, don't tell" by quoting from Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. Excerpt:
There is a form of bad advice often given young writers -- namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell. Needless to say, many great novelists combine "dramatic" showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out ... when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.
Read the whole thing. Patti follows up this quotation from Prose with some choice thoughts of her own, namely that "stasis isn't the outcome of narration (or telling) necessarily, but of too little story, too little description, too little character." I think she's right on the proverbial ball. As I've kept at the craft, a realization has slowly crept over me: Writing is less about composition than it is about consideration. My most unsuccessful writing attempts come when I try to scribble away without feeding any grist to my mental mill. Before we sharpen our pencils or start typing, perhaps it's best to begin with thought.

(Picture: CC 2012 by HAURY!)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I really like that.

My own personal term, generated by spending too much time with poets, is "density"--a term that can apply to academic non-fiction or fiction alike. If your goal is to keep a reader enthralled, a great tool is to provide as much information in as small a space as possible. This may mean telling--as is the case in the Greek play Medea--or it may mean presenting the bit of dialog, action, or gesture that really "says it all."

Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill begins with a perfect tell-don't-show: "The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up." That line drew me in more than any action--because it does so much. (It makes me laugh, makes me consider the world anew, it affirms my sense of joy and frivolity, and it makes me very curious as to why he would begin a novel this way.

Maybe the phrase should be "do, don't (just) tell"?

Loren Eaton said...

CR, if you like dense writing, you really should read some of William Gibson's early stuff. He's a master at it, although I think that density makes his prose little less accessible.

I like your summary phrase, and it seems pretty right-on to me.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Neromancer is on my Bookshelf of Guilt. Strangely, my introduction to Gibson was in pattern recognition, which still has one of the greatest treatment of 9/11 I've read. Evocative, heartbreaking, and laced with the sense of actions too big for humans to ever fully comprehend them.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Also, speaking of Gibson, I read an interview with him in which he described his writing process. Apparently, he writes in spurts, revising from the beginning each time. This means that the ends of his books are often nearly first drafts, neatly tying the threads together, but the opening sentences and chapters are carefully worked and re-worked to convey precise effects.

So it isn't an accident that he can start books with lines as compelling as "The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel."

Loren Eaton said...

You should really try Burning Chrome, CR. Because it's a collection of short stories, it's a lot easier to get into than Gibson's longer works. Also, "Johnny Mnemonic" features a character from Neuromancer.