When You’re Showing Too Much
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Every piece of advice that we’re going to talk about in this series has good intentions at its origin, but has evolved into something either misused or something inviolable. “Show, don’t tell” is the latter. In itself, “show, don’t tell” is great advice, but it’s morphed into an absolute rule.
Originally, this advice was thought to be attributed to Anton Chekov, but the author we really have to thank for “show, don’t tell,” is Percy Lubbock from his book The Craft of Fiction. There are several other famous authors whom readers and writers would have heard similar adages from, however. One such author is Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel Fight Club, who recommended a ban on what he called “thought verbs,” which would mean taking out words like “believes,” “knows,” and “thinks.”
When it’s bad
This is a little bit of a mixed bag because what the advice is intended for isn’t bad. A lot of the time this advice is misused in the sense that new writers think that you have to use it for not only emotions but actions and time as well. There is a time and a place for it, to be sure.
Your reader does not need to know every single decision that your character makes of why he turns left or right unless it’s going to affect where the plot is going to go (ie, if the character turns right, he’ll go home, but if the character turns left, he’ll go on an adventure). It’s really not critical information, and neither is the entire journey of the travels. It’s okay to have travel gaps with scene breaks, we promise. This is secondary information in the story (to a point—there are exceptions to this, like writing adventure novels); you’re going to weigh your readers down and fatigue them before the first act of the book is finished if you put every little thing in there.
There is one last bone I have to pick with overuse of “show, don’t tell,” and that’s when it’s used in the setting. And I feel a little bit like a hypocrite even writing this because I’m regularly guilty of it when I write. Your reader deserves to have an immersive experience in your world, but for the love of God don’t bludgeon them with it. One author in particular I think has a hefty amount to blame on this last bit is the great JRR Tolkien himself.
Please, put away your pitchforks and let me explain.
JRRT is an amazing storyteller and an even more amazing linguist. Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite stories out there, but with every fiber of my being do I hate the sheer amount of detail that is crammed into each page. It is wholly unnecessary to devote pages upon pages upon pages to a single field as Tolkien has been known to do.
When it’s good
This one should be pretty obvious. You want your reader to have an immersive experience in your story, and they certainly deserve one, but that doesn’t always mean showing every detail. Sometimes it’s more fun for readers when authors subscribe to the Hemmingway “Iceberg Method,” and the reader can make their own theories about what’s happening.
When it comes to “show, don’t tell,” this is where Palahniuk’s advice on “thought verbs” (also “telling verbs”) should be heeded. Your reader wants to feel what your character is feeling, not be told what they’re feeling. For example, here is the same idea, one version with telling and one with showing:
He felt awful.
He groaned and let his head fall back into the pillow. His chest rattled with mucus when he breathed and his eyes ached when the light flicked on above him. Why would anyone think it was a good idea to turn on his light when he was in this condition?
In the first example, we know the character feels bad. In the second, we know why he feels bad and sympathize with his plight.
Your goal as a writer should not only be to tell a good story, but to make your reader forget that they’re reading it and not along for the ride with the characters themselves.
How to make sure you’re not going overboard with your showing
One of the easiest ways to make sure you’re not going overboard is to identify when it’s better to tell than to show. This is easier said than done, especially when you’re a new writer. These have been briefly touched on already, but here are just a few places where it’s more beneficial to tell and not show:
- Going from Point A to Point B when it doesn’t have an effect on plot or character development.
- Passage of time.
- Telling some of the simpler backstory for characters. (We don’t need to see Character A actually tilling the fields to learn he’s worked on a farm in the past when he comes across a new farmer doing something he wouldn’t have done. All we need is a brief, “He wouldn’t have done it that way when he was working the land.”)
Another way to make sure that you don’t get too lost in the details is to have critique partners and readers and ask them to keep in mind the details—are there enough, or are there far too many? For me, my husband alpha reads my work when he has the time, and he’s been given explicit instructions to comment “Tolkien Field” in the sections that I go overboard in.
Have you ever heard writing advice that seemed odd? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook! Keep an eye out for next month’s Misused Writing Advice: Limit Your POV.
And join us next week for an interview with author Diane Anthony for the relaunch of her SciFi novel Supernova.
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