Writing Reality: The Silent Story of Show don’t Tell

15/09/2013 at 23:08 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


When it comes to writing, Show don’t Tell can be a priceless component for exposing that which needs more audience interaction. It’s all very well for an author to speak at the reader when there are facts in the offing; but it’s only ever a one-sided conversation.

The truth of art is about interaction – bringing together that which the creator offers, and what the audience already holds as experience/applied knowledge. The result is a bond, a unification of source and meaning; the give-and-take of a ball passed across the court, and if the pitch is right, the audience will make the catch. Perhaps they’ll run off with their own ideas; as individuals, we bring personal inflections based upon memory and mindset.

But if the pitch is out of context – if a generalization is made, where more detail was necessary for emotional engagement – then the ball is dropped, the audience left cold.

Tell-Summaries work like a film’s passage-of-time montage or a video game’s Cutscene; a sequence of events that riffle over an extended period, in which not all details are made available or are necessary to the audience. Those which are displayed are compact, delivered as unassailable fact. A canny director / author knows when such editing is required; perhaps for a shorthand narrative that, while informative, doesn’t require high audience interaction. Narrative and plot points wash over, inform, but don’t necessarily engage.

The intro to Bioshock is an example of Tell; an informative Cutscene, in which the player becomes a backseat audience, unable to control the protagonist for any decisions made. This funnels the audience’s attention onto the facts being Told – setting, circumstance, objective characterization, plot progression – for absorption, and referencing at later points in gameplay. There is no immediate distraction from needing to engage, to keep the protagonist alive.

It’s essential to find the balance between what an audience wishes to – or can – engage in, and what reaction/conclusions they are fine with being led towards, for the sake of narrative progression. Too much Show can bog the latter down. Tell-summaries act as the foundations on which audience engagement is layered, in personal inflections such as dialogue and reactions. They may be paragraphs or pages long. The key is to find which technique fits which context.

Sometimes, a summary of events may be a safer stance for a sensitive subject. Audience engagement is drawn upon in terms of imagination – they’re left to close the gaps in the Tell. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs can be used as a point of reference, with the infamous ear-cutting scene.

The camera moves away at the last moment, but the build-up of tension in the dance-shuffle, upbeat range of Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You”, and close-ups of the victim’s bleeding face, creates a juxtaposition of fact and imagination – infused with empty air and muffled off-screen cries – that’s more emotionally engaging than any actual portrayal of violence. This can be a critical point where film ratings are concerned, or indeed the level of interaction your audience wishes to have.

An inferred Tell can be a handy way of filling in the blanks, particularly when the primary instinct of fear of the unknown, is engaged. On the flip side, basic human curiosity is pinged like an elastic band, calling the participants back … just to check. If the audience doesn’t have all the answers on the page, they’re more likely to turn to the next one.
If a memory is invoked in a story’s narrative, they will be curious to see what it’s point was, where it might lead:

“At first I was alarmed. Then, as I lay still, gathering my wits, I reflected on how long Eel Marsh House had stood here, steady as a lighthouse, quite alone and exposed… And then, those memories of childhood began to be stirred again and I dwelt nostalgically… I lay back and slipped into that pleasant, trance-like state somewhere between sleeping and waking, recalling the past and all its emotions and impressions vividly, until I felt I was a small boy again.” – pg 123, The Woman in Black, Susan Hill.

Contrast this abbreviated segue between past and present, which invokes a mood of security and trance, with the needle-sharp dialogue and paralinguistic features exchanged between the narrator, Arthur Kipps, and local countryman Samuel Daily:

“He sighed and shifted about uneasily in his chair avoiding my eye and looking into the fire –
‘For God’s sake, what is it you are holding back, man? What are you so afraid of telling me?’
‘You, Arthur,’ he said, ‘will be away from here tomorrow or the next day. You, if you are lucky, will neither hear nor see nor know of anything to do with that damned place again. The rest of us have to stay. We’re to live with it.’
‘With what? Stories – rumours? With the sight of that woman in black from time to time? With what?’
‘With whatever will surely follow. Sometime or other… It’s changed people. They don’t speak of it, you found that out. Those who have suffered worst say least – Jerome, Keckwick.’
I felt my heart-beat increase, I put a hand to my collar to loosen it a little, drew my chair back from the fire.” – pg 147.

This is an example of Show. Dialogue carries the narrative forward with hinged explanations, a drawing-out of events; not only to hook the audience and lead them on, but to invoke the fearful reluctance inside Daily. He is genuinely disturbed by the knowledge he holds, weary of carrying it; there’s faint envy in his tone – “You, Arthur …” His sentence structure is simplistic and staccato, falling from his mouth like stones.

For the same reason, Kipps’ dialogue and narrative are structured along jagged lines, as of hitched breathing, a tight chest – “hand to my collar to loosen it a little.” There’s no need for him to narrate his fear, as Hill creates this effect through his actions, choice of words and repetition:
God’s sake“, “So afraid“, “With what? Stories – rumours? With the sight of that woman in black from time to time? With what?’

When it comes to characterization, an author would do well to Show the truth of a narrator’s personality through interaction with others. Not just dialogue, but paralinguistic features (body language, tics, tone) and that which they do and say (or do not say); these infuse a character with 3D personality and subtext. More often than not, people do not speak aloud their true thoughts and intentions – based upon social mores, natural reserve, or a reluctance to be pinned down to an actual interpretation of meaning.

Because The Woman in Black travels between past and present, there is some leeway available when older-Kipps refers to his younger self as having a “youthful and priggish way”. Retrospect is his filter in this Tell, and a rueful one at that. In the active past-narrative, this “youthful priggish” nature is made apparent via Show:

“I began to be weary, of journeying and of the cold and of sitting still while being jarred and jolted about, and to look forward to my supper, a fire and a warm bed.”
– The repetition of “and” gives a drawn-out quality to the sentence, as of childish whining en route to a destination that at first held much bearing. Now he’s tired, and peevish with it.

Upon first meeting Sam Daily, his first appraisal is less than positive:
“He was a big man, with a beefy face and huge, raw-looking hands … nearer to sixty than fifty”
– There’s a trapdoor negativity where Daily’s aged, weather-beaten appearance is concerned. Though Kipps reins himself in before becoming outright critical in language, his tone is patronizing:
“His clothes were of good quality, but somewhat brashly cut .. he wore a heavy, prominent seal-ring on his left hand, and that, too, had a newness and a touch of vulgarity about it.”

Hill employs Daily as both protector and foil to unpin Kipps’ character through Show. The countryman’s consistent politeness and willingness to help, effectively send up the young man’s assumptions by subverting them:

“I decided that he was a man who had made, or come into, money late and unexpectedly, and was happy for the world to know it.”
(compare this with Kipps’ reaction to Daily’s questions about his destination):
“I nodded stiffly.
‘You don’t tell me you’re a relative?’
‘I am her solicitor.’ I was rather pleased with the way it sounded.” – pg 36.

This from a man who has already taken mild affront to the “vulgarity” of Daily’s display of financial well-being. He goes further towards making himself less than endearing, by paraphrasing Daily’s description of the local mist and its dangers:

“‘One minute it’s as clear as a June day, the next …’ he gestured to indicate the dramatic suddenness of his frets.” – pg 36.

By deliberately overloading the adjective-fork, Kipps conveys surprise at the other man’s exuberance; the implication is that he believes Daily to be exaggerating. There’s the distancing effect of ‘his frets’. The tone is patronizing, as of an adult hand patting an excitable child’s head.

“‘It’s a far-flung part of the world. We don’t get many visitors.’
‘I suppose because there is nothing much to see.’
‘It all depends what you mean by “nothing.” There’s the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village,’ he chuckled. ‘Those are particularly fine examples of “nothing to see. And we’ve a good wild ruin of an abbey with a handsome graveyard – you can get to it at low tide. It’s all according to what takes your fancy!’ – pg 38.

– Note the repetition of Kipps’ words back on himself, in conjunction with one point of interest after another; the lesson-recitation sentence structure; personification of the graveyard with ‘handsome‘; reference to local knowledge with ‘get to it at low tide”, suggesting authority through Ethos.

In this brief paragraph, Daily undermines Kipps’ first appraisal of him with a teasing that, by its very gentleness, sets him in higher esteem than the protagonist. The latter’s surprise is made interestingly clear with Hill’s use of a symbolic sound-conduit, which effectively ends the conversation’s stand-off mood and sets it on another route entirely:

“‘You are almost making me anxious to get back to that London particular!”
There was a shriek from the train whistle.”

– Another train emerges from the tunnel, reminding them of their shared destination. Perhaps it’s the sight of the “line of empty yellow-lit carriages that disappeared into the darkness” (Show of desolation, cold, the unknown) which appeals to Daily’s kind nature, for he chooses to see past Kipps’ thinly-disguised rudeness, to offer hospitality:
“‘If you care to come with me, I can drop you off at the Gifford Arms – my car will be waiting for me, and it’s on my way.”

Kipps’ disbelief and pragmatism – “exaggeration of the bleakness and strangeness” – have a hollow echo to them, following so soon after his staccato exclamation of wishing to return to London. The inference is that, through a reconsideration of his situation as the foreign element, he’s willing to be mollified:
‘He seemed keen to reassure me and to make up for his teasing exaggeration of the bleakness and strangeness of the area, and I thanked him and accepted his offer.”

– There’s no need for a Tell, nor for an apology. Hill makes Kipps’ feelings clear through Show. He is the alien, on unfamiliar territory and out at night, with its symbolism of the unknown and universal fear. This is imagery that an audience can latch onto.

Using weather to convey the typical mood of a setting (pathetic fallacy) works only for as long as the latter remains objective. For example, the moors of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, tend towards a naturally wild climate that can be easily set to personification – either as stand-alone imagery, or through the behaviour of characters such as the willful Cathy and dark-souled Heathcliff.

To avoid breaking the fourth wall with steering an audience’s perceptions too much, it’s best to stick with what is a natural progression of weather patterns in your setting. Don’t let a character’s mood influence the weather, or there is a risk of creating an unrealistic standpoint (this holds true across genres; even if used as a trope in fantasy, it should fit the context of a character’s powers.) It can’t be stormy everyday in a horror genre. Far more unsettling, is the upending of audience expectations. Keep things normal as a backdrop to the Unusual. The rickety old house set against a bright blue sky and piercing white sun; the children’s playground, wind-torn and empty of life but for lowering nimbus-clouds. This is using setting and scenery as a Show of mood, on a subversive level.

Setting and circumstance can certainly be employed for subjective Show when it comes to cause and effect. Imagine your character in their normal state of mind; perhaps they’re a stickler for neatness and order. What happens when something upsets their life, throws them out of regular habits and safe patterns? They may become lacklustre at the death of a family member or friend; life may cease to hold meaning. Their clothes, so pristine before, may hang wrinkled and loose as their thought processes, from not bothering to iron anything; weight loss from lack of appetite may also be a contributing. Makeup may be applied haphazardly, or not at all – large black circles may ring their eyes, from insomnia. Their garden may go untended, full of weeds where only prim flowerbeds once lay; the house may fall to rack and ruin, by slow degrees of separation from reality and consequence.

There’s little need to Tell an audience that your character is suffering, when it’s plain to see. Dialogue and character interaction can build this further. Last week, after a crazy night of editing, I got into work two hours late after oversleeping the clock.
A co-worker took one look at me and said, “I’ll get the coffee on.”

Were I to put this into a written scene, I’d add a line where, with one hand, I scraped the mass of knots I once called hair out of my eyes, and with the other supported myself in the doorway. Dialogue
(as a direct quote here) would run thus:
“You know me far too well.”

They do at work, when it comes to my caffeine habits – this is through experience, past interaction. But how does this work for the audience? An author has to be careful with how much they let hinge on perceived knowledge. Coffee makes a good caffeine-kick reference; a near-universal fact that can carry a shared joke better than something more specific, such as Red Bull energy drink.
When setting a brand name to your work, check context first – does it belong in this scenario, this genre, this time-frame? Is it an easily-accessible Show, or does it run the risk of dating your work / throwing the audience out of their suspension of disbelief? When making an in-joke about a character’s habit, does it dovetail with the rest of their life, or stick out as an unnecessary plot point?

Sensory language and figurative speech can help Show an audience what is unfolding within a scene, at what pace, and – with the right words – how to find the world immediately surrounding a character. Jeffrey Eugenides is a fine example of an author who has mastered the art of Show/Tell-characterization. The following scene dissembles the projected image of sexual power surrounding the character Lux in The Virgin Suicides, and invokes a very real sense of despair at the futility of her situation:

“Through the bronchioles of leafless elm branches, from the Pitzenbergers’ attic, we finally made out Lux’s face as she sat wrapped in a Hudson’s Bay blanket, smoking a cigarette, impossibly close in the circle of our binoculars because she moved her lips only inches away but without sound.” – pgs 145/146, The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

– So near yet so far; the girl of their dreams may well be just this, an illusion brought to some kind of reality through the depth sensation of binoculars. What they see, and what they hear and know for certain, are separate quantities. It’s the equivalent of looking at the moon through a telescope and fancying that you know its face, every contour; how it feels to touch. A sense of yearning is invoked. Lux, as perceived by the boys watching her, is a figure of sexual power. Even while under house arrest, she makes the appearance of preferring a casually arrogant role:

“True, it was impossible for Mr and Mrs Lisbon to see their own roof… but there was the unavoidable prior noise of sneaking down to let the men and boys in, of leading them up creaking stairs in a darkness charged with anxious vibrations, night noises humming in their ears, the men sweating, risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce, just to be led up the stairway, through a window, to the roof, where in the midst of their passion they chafed their knees and rolled in stagnant puddles.” – pg 146

Powerfully evocative language – “creaking, charged, vibrations, risking” – spread out over a meandering sentence structure, which draws the tension out to its somewhat brutal climax (for the egos of the men, brought low into puddles and against their better judgement, by a child.) Contrast this with the description of Lux that follows:

“All sixteen mentioned her jutting ribs, the in-substantiality of her thighs, and one who went up to the roof with Lux during a warm winter rain, told us how the basins of her collarbones collected water…They spoke of being pinned to the chimney as if by two great beating wings, and of the slight blond fuzz above her upper lip that felt like plumage.” – pg 148

The juxtaposition of positive connotations/abstract imagery – “carnal angel”, “plumage” – with negative concrete reality, “collarbones collected water, jutting ribs” – creates a scene of pathos, and unreliability where Lux’s personality is concerned. For all her power over these men, she is wasting away in body and soul; apparently taking no pleasure from the “measureless charity” she deals out, falling into cinematic pretense of Self that is in no way true to her circumstances:

“She told Bob McBrearley that she couldn’t live without ‘getting it regular’, though she delivered the phrase with a Brooklyn accent, as though imitating a movie.”

Imitation. Phrase. Through the collective narrative of the boys, their observations, Eugendies layers up the sense of a girl living vicariously through the imaginations and expectations of those around her. She distances herself from the painful reality of being housebound with her sisters, losing weight from malnutrition. To her adoring audience, she is a “succubus of those binocular nights” – but the narrative itself tells the audience a very different story:

“Dan Tyco … stepped in something soft at the top of the landing and picked it up. Only after Lux led him out the window and up to the roof could he see by moonlight what he held: the half-eaten sandwich Father Moody had encountered five months earlier…Mrs Lisbon had stopped cooking for the girls and they lived by foraging.” – pg 147

Emotional investment is crucial at times like this. If an author is not willing to allow their audience more than a back-seat view of what is going on, through a generalization where details were needed, then the latter will be unable to engage. The distance is breached when emotional investment and sensory integration are added; spicing up the dull porridge of “he was thin and tall” with the cinnamon of “his clothes hung from his frame; he was forced to duck under every doorway.”

Notice that this took a good deal more words to convey. This will equate to more time spent writing, more thought applied to intention. There’s a need for deferring to connotation (figurative) as well as denotation (plain facts.) As an author, you’re reaching out to meet the audience halfway; giving them the chance to feel as much a creator, as a participant-witness. In this way, the story becomes relative to their lives and the structure is made sound. The narrative becomes credible, and the characters stand as people.

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5 Comments

  1. Nillu Nasser Stelter said,

    Fantastic article, Rach. I’m not confident or great at dialogue so this is really helpful.

    • celenagaia33 said,

      I’m so glad to read the this. I tend to go off on one with these WR articles; they’re an excuse to cut loose and ramble about all the literary techniques I find so fascinating, putting examples from books and media to them for audience reference and relation. But they’re also helpful for keeping my own style in check; likeccopying lines in school, to embed a lesson. Only far more fun šŸ˜‰ and the fact others such as yourself find them useful too, is such a happy bonus for me. A totally unexpected one I must add, never saw myself as the educational type. But I plan to write many more, as there’s always another lit/language technique to dissect and analyse; and create a free ebook for anyone who wants them.

      Thanks again, Nillu. Your support and kindness continues to spur me on. You’re ace xx

      • Nillu Nasser Stelter said,

        Support goes both ways so thank you too. And as we’ve said before totally think you could charge for this advice ;-). Behind you all the way, n

  2. Writing Reality: Connotation and Denotation (AKA was that Really what you meant?) | celenagaia said,

    […] Put simply, Denotation is the literal definition of a word. The dictionary pull-out. It’s about as plain as it’s going to get, the reality of fact. It’s one side of the coin, while its flip – Connotation – is the projector of image(s) via “socio-cultural and ‘personal’ associations (ideological, emotional etc)… typically related to the interpreter’s class, age, gender, ethnicity and so on.” In essence, what an individual / audience takes away from what the creator gives, as referenced in this article of Show and Tell. […]

  3. Joanne Blaikie said,

    Great and timely post for me as I’m mid first draft of something and know my first drafts often have a lot more tell than show. So I’ll be referring to all this as I go into edit mode soon. Thanks Rachael. Very knowledgeable and insightful post.

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