Saturday, August 14, 2010

The trouble with real life

Is that it's all Show and no Tell. All the dull and repetitive and painful bits that you can cover in fiction with a breezy few lines:

A week of hiking through the mountains had toughened Jem's blistered feet, but had not shaken the zombie buzzard that trailed him.

Sinda endured eighteen hours of back labour, but when she saw her triplets, she--

Twenty years in the salt mines, Maurice thought, shrugging the heavily-muscled shoulders he'd gained swinging a pickaxe, and at last I am free to seek my revenge.

in real life have to be gone through with, step by dull step. I speak from the depths of fruit harvest, of my few little trees. Just as I begin to see the end of the Transparent apples, I pick up two fallen pears, and see a few plums purple over the driveway. Oh, and the blackberries? The blackberries are constant.
Every night I've been running apples through the peeler-corer-slicer thingy and filling one or both dehydrators. The only way I can get through it is to play cds. Right now I'm repeat-listening to Cat Stevens, Al Stewart, and Lost and Profound, because I like the lyrics. (I'm not musical - it's all about the lyrics for me).
One of my agent's comments about the first half of Willow Knot (surviving in the woods) was 'Enough with the gathering!'
Yeah, that.
I still have 3 trees to go, running probably into November. Last year there were Golden Delicious on the tree in the snow.

My writing-related point--and I do have one--is that one of the Rules that is sometimes wielded like a 2x4 in writing workshops is SHOW DON'T TELL.
It's a good rule, basically. Don't tell me that Colonel Absalom is hot-tempered. If his hot temper is relevant to the plot, show him losing it at a subordinate (ideally about something that develops the plot as well as the character). Sure, I can go with that.
The problem comes when the rule is employed as if there were no exceptions, and as if it were a guarantee of good writing.
Really, truly, telling does have a place. It gets you-the-reader through the dull bits. It speeds up plot. It reduces wordcount and leaves space for the exciting parts that you want to get properly stuck into.
It can sneak you-the-writer through those bits you haven't properly researched, like how many days it really takes to travel by coach from Framlingham to London in 1806 in the winter.

I don't really want to hear every word of a conversation that ends up agreeing where to eat for lunch. I don't really want to taste every dish that's had at said lunch, and feel the stomachache afterwards. I don't need to know about the stains on the tablecloth unless they build the atmosphere or foreshadow something.
Telling can be better than showing. Use it wisely. (She said, as if she had any cred to be handing out advice.)


Terri-Lynne said...

The whole "sometimes tell is good" thing gets misinterpreted almost as much as "show, don't tell." Condensing twenty years in the salt mines or eighteen hours of labor is good tell, deciding it's easier to say, "she was pretty," rather than show what makes her pretty is sloppy/lazy writing, not expedient. much fruit! It sounds so fantastic, but in actuality, it must kind of suck sometimes!

dawtheminstrel said...



batgirl said...

The worst thing about the fruit - and honestly, I do love having my orchardlet - is that I feel horrible guilt if it's wasted. Myl's obsessiveness about storing for the winter is not far from my squirrel-heart.

The worst thing about the show/tell rules is that they rely for application on the writer's own judgement and good sense. Doom, I tell you, Doom!

Unknown said...

It is a difficult balance as I like a lot a textual detail as maybe that might be influenced by my news paper writing of the past. Maybe it might be easier to winnow it out after the main impetus of writing.

Unknown said...

Sorry, I'm the 'unknown'..but you may have guessed by my writing style.

Unknown said...


batgirl said...

You have to ask yourself though - is that detail _doing_ something useful? Is it informing the reader of something that will aid their understanding of the situation or the people or the implications? Because there's no end to the amount of detail that could be put in - it's like the 'coastline problem': how finely do you measure?

I like detail myself, but I don't want to read a three paragraph description of the interior of a room that doesn't affect the story.