November 3, 2008

Personal essay: Show Not Tell -- a horror story.

This autumn, I was invited by the publishing company HarperCollins UK to be an occasional guest contributor to the official blog for their online experiment authonomy, which Americans can think of as a "Project Greenlight" for books -- writers are encouraged to upload their unsigned novels, at which point they are read and rated by other unsigned writers, with the top-ranking books each month getting "kicked upstairs" to actual HarperCollins editors. Even better, they've graciously given me permission to reprint the essays here at the CCLaP site a few days later. Below is the latest; and you can find all the rest if you want at the main personal essay master list here at the site.

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Show Not Tell: A horror story

So what's one of the main differences between a fictional story and real life? Well, here's a big one: unlike real life, a fictional story aims usually to present only a small slice of a particular group of people's lives, not the entireties, and so by definition must present a certain amount of "backstory" at the beginning (more formally known as "exposition"), so that readers can get quickly caught up on what's going on in these people's lives. But since the goal of mainstream fiction is to get a reader "sucked into" the story, to literally trick their brains into thinking these made-up characters are real and their plights legitimately dire, an author can't just sit down and literally write out the backstory formally at the beginning of a novel, as if creating a Wikipedia entry explaining what's been happening up to now.

Within writing circles, it's known as the "showing not telling" problem; and it's one of the more controversial and headache-producing literary problems out there, too, in that many disagree in the first place over the term's very definition, much less how to best overcome it. Today, for example, I thought I'd share my particular thoughts on the subject, as it specifically applies to books that aim to be mainstream hits; and this is opposed to ones that aim to be more underground cult hits, for example, not to mention those who just generally disagree with my opinions to begin with. And my thoughts can be best expressed as follows...

Whenever we meet someone randomly new in our real lives -- say, as a hypothetical example, our new friend Sally -- rarely do they start the relationship by literally sitting down and rattling off an encyclopedic summation of their entire lives so far:

"Hi. I'm Sally. I'm kind of unfairly cruel to most people around me, but that's only because of unresolved issues with my controlling father. I'm the kind of woman who likes collecting Hermes scarves, and then being tied up with them during intense but monogamous sex. Oh, and if you're another woman, I might viciously turn on you one night when I'm wasted. Sorry about that."

Or in other words, rarely does Sally sit down in our real lives and simply tell us these things; instead, as our friendship with Sally progresses, we learn them by simply witnessing her showing us. We actually watch her be unfairly cruel to most others; watch her awkward relationship with her father; perhaps we end up dating her, and watch her predilection for boutique bondage. A great writer's job is to weave all these kinds of examples together, to provide at the end a highly complex and realistic look at a person, precisely by duplicating the way we get to know a new person in real life, not by simply writing out an Wikipedia entry on the subject.

But of course, as mentioned, there are lots of exceptions to that rule too; say, for example, that you're deliberately going for a highly stylized form of writing, one deliberately flat and overly expositional; like a Garrison Keillor tale, for example, or a Wes Anderson movie, or the Coen Brothers at their deadpan-zaniest. Or perhaps you mean to say something deeper about that character precisely by rattling off a series of short declarative statements about them, ala Kurt Vonnegut; or there could be any one of another dozen reasons you might "tell" more in a story than "show," and still have it come out a legitimately great project. This is part of the magic trick of being a great writer, after all, is in knowing how to take a bunch of little words we all use everyday too, and turn them into a unique and profound experience.

No, I'm talking today to all the authors who decided to upload a manuscript to a website sponsored by HarperCollins; authors who obviously are aiming for bigger commercial goals, who want to have a mainstream hit on their hands and maybe even get a movie deal out of the whole thing. Because here in the early 2000s, we can safely say that it's the "Realist" school of thought that has largely taken over mainstream expectations for novels; first popularized by such writers as Henry James in the early 1900s, it's expressed in modern terms by such phrases as, "The book felt real to me," "the characters had become my friends by the end," "I kept forgetting I was reading a book," and more. When it comes to this goal, and of making a splash at a place like authonomy, I recommend the specific things talked about here today; but that's also while recognizing that there are many different ways to look at this issue as well (and in fact, I hope you'll feel free to share your own opinion on the subject in the comments below).

That's it for this time; and don't forget, if you'd like to see a specific issue addressed here, feel free to drop me a line directly at cclapcenter[at] Happy writing!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:12 AM, November 3, 2008. Filed under: Literature |