The Truth – and lies – in writing advice #3
Always show, Never Tell.
FOR – Showing the reader certain things can make the writing more immersive and more emotive and all that other good stuff. Ya know, “my hands were shaking so bad I dropped the banana right by her feet. What an idiot.” is so much more engaging than “I dropped the banana and I felt nervous when The Pretty Girl was disgusted with me.”
AGAINST – But always? Always?? Like, how do you introduce new characters without telling the reader their names? Interpretive dance?
I think, as with a lot of writing advice, the best approach is moderation. Telling all the time is distancing and boring, but showing all the time can be fatiguing and overly wordy. Both techniques have their place.
You’re not going to get banished from The Imaginary Writing Academy for saying:
“Joseph was mortified. He picked up the banana and ran away before The Pretty Girl could laugh at his banana-related idiocy. He had never felt more stupid in his entire life. Not even that one time when his mum asked him if he’d changed his boxers in front of all his friends.”
(Man this is a silly example. But what the hell. I guess I’m stuck with it.)
It does the job. It’s concise. It tells the reader that Joseph is a bit of a clumsy kid who is nervous around The Pretty Girl – and perhaps All Pretty Girls.
But is it better or worse with more of the showing?
“Joseph’s cheeks flushed as he picked the banana up from by her shoes, his fingers fumbling. When he finally got hold, he grasped the banana so tight it might burst. He kept his gaze to the floor when she tried to look at him, adrenaline spiking, taking over. His heart hammered like the whole world was ending. A vision of his mum humiliating him in front of all his friends flitted across his mind, and this was so much worse. He had to leave. His legs were moving before he knew what was happening. Feet pounding on the concrete, banana tight in his hand. Escape was his only thought. He couldn’t believe he’d been betrayed by his most favouritist fruit.”
More immersive? I suppose so? But that was a full on paragraph for one simple action. The banana incident might be THE incident in this tale. That fateful banana could send these two characters on an adventure of self-discovery and heartache like the world has never seen. In that case? Show away. Go for it. Dig deep.
But if that action really was just a small thing to establish that Joseph is a bit of a clutz, does Banana-Gate really deserve three chapters and an appendix?
Balance. Like I said. Show in the key scenes, and pull back a bit to keep momentum when the moments aren’t massive.
So, I hereby decree that always show, never tell is over the top and not entirely helpful.
Into the sea with you.