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February 9, 2017
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Part III: Showing vs. Telling
Rue the day you tell what's been shown

For those of us who don’t remember show and tell in kindergarten oh so fondlyI personally recall an unfortunate incident involving a classroom hamster and a certain child’s not-so-captive boa constrictorwe promise that this will be our final installment in this particular series of blogs on Showing vs. Telling. Although there is so much to tell about showing that we could probably write a book about it.

And if you’d like to read such a book, as we recommend that you do, it’s called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Almost every aspect of fiction writing can be analyzed by the degree to which you the author allow your reader to formulate his own pictures, thoughts, opinions and versions of your story. This is a delicate matter, certainly, because leaving too much out is just as much a travesty as directly telling the reader exactly what his five senses should be sensing at all times. And it really is a more complex question than simply what details you choose to include. As we’ve shown in Part II: The Untold Art of Storyshowing, it’s not the specific details that are the culprit in showing versus telling, rather it has to do with how these details are revealed to the reader.

In Part II, we also discussed some aspects of dialogue: beats and attribution. Here we will continue in this vein with a discussion of interior monologue. Interior monologue is often usedas beats are usedbetween the lines of dialogue for the sake of variety and to create a sense of attachment to the POV character in the scene. It can also be used apart from dialogue. As we also reviewed in POV Part I: A Telltale Sign that a Piece is not Ready for Publication when authors hop from head to head within a scene, it can be jarring for the reader, and pull them out of the story. In the same way that this can happen with “headhopping,” so it can happen when we are told too much about what a character thinks instead of being shown by the thoughts coursing through the character’s mind and how the characters around the POV character respond to words and actions.

You can see a bad bit of interior monologue in the following example:

“But, Johnny, how can you leave?” She asked him, trying hard to keep her inflection free of guilt. She knew that John could not handle the guilt, remembering the time she made him feel bad for eating all of her fries at the In-and-Out burger on 23rd and Sunset. She saw that his eyes were watering. He was blinking a lot. She supposed that he was on the verge of an emotional outburst.  

“There’s something in my eye,” he said. She supposed he was lying. She thought he always lied.

Well, okay, not only is the above an example of bad interior monologue, it’s also pretty bad dialogue. But in any case, we can see how directly telling the reader exactly what is being thought can be a bit like hitting the reader over the head, and like bad beats, bad interior monologue can detract from the power of the dialogue, supposing that the dialogue carries the emotions of the speakers. At The Editorial Department, we often find ourselves writing “resist the urge to explain” in the margins of our clients’ manuscriptsR.U.E. for short.

Note this example of well-executed interior monologue taken from the opening of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ chapter seven, and note that interior monologue is not always used between the lines of dialogue:

Big Jim Billups fondled the .38 in his pocket, waddled over to the back of his truck, and spat. Could’ve stopped the whole damn thing last nightthey didn’t carry no guns. What was the use of doing a job if you didn’t do a good one? He rocked, shifting his weight from one leg to another, and spat again. The sound of the marchers was closer now. Soon it would be time.

Here, instead of being labeled as thoughts, knowledge, or supposition, the interior monologue is left for the reader to interpret as thought, and it clearly feels more genuine. And we are pulled into the POV character’s headspace without the writer having to explain to us that these are indeed thoughts. In many ways, this is similar to using a simple “said” for dialogue attribution instead of a more cumbersome verb and adverb combination.

Another aspect of showing vs. telling that we can look at in regard to successful storyshowing, is dialogue itself. It works so much better when characters’ emotions are carried not so much by telling each other exactly how they feel, but by the chosen tone and the way they speak past or misunderstand each other. A character that tells another exactly how she feels might say:

“I’m not attracted to you anymore.”

And this character might not be as vivid in projection of emotion as a character who conveys the same feeling by saying:

“Remember when you used to wear nice things? It was nice, when you wore nice things.”

In the first example, we are told exactly how the character feels. Whereas in the second, we are allowed to infer from the character’s subtle suggestions that she used to feel differently about whomever she is speaking to. Granted, the full context of the dialogue and the storyshowing up to the point when the dialogue is uttered are also crucial parts of the synergy that creates an effective scene.

The untold art of storyshowing is about balance. It is obviously about avoiding unnecessary exposition. And this is probably the topic that comes up most in workshop or classrooms. But to reduce the matter to exposition versus scene is to simplify something that actually runs the gambit through every aspect of writing fiction. There are no hard and fast rules, and as with any craft, one must be dedicated to the practice and to the discipline of the form in order to attain mastery. You will not rue the day you resist the urge to explain everything to your readers. That is what showing versus telling is all about.

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