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Wading through mud - again.


There must be millions of words written about ' showing' and 'telling' in narrative fiction.Some of them are very good words indeed and I'm loth to add to them, but it is a recurrent issue for many beginner writers and sometimes for those of us with more experience. The difference between telling and showing is the difference between commentating on a life and living it, the difference between experience and introspection, between drama and summary and yet because all of narrative is inevitably 'telling' the reader the story, the distinction is not always obvious. For me it is the difference between wading through squelching mud with your character as it sucks at her feet, leaks through her waterproofs and fills her nostrils with the dank stench of decay, and simply traipsing through the muddy ground for hours. Sometimes you need one type of writing, sometimes the other, but it is good to recognise the differences between them and to know when to deploy each of them. Journalism, business and academic writing all require a summary of facts, a brief telling of the story behind the news, the numbers, the battle for comprehension. Opinion pieces, interviews, articles are all about commentary, introspection and summary. Most of what we read is 'tell,' illustrated by photographs or video clips that do the 'showing.' Only in narrative fiction are we shown a scene through words alone. What makes it tricky is that all the best loved fictional voices show and tell often in the same paragraph. Such voices demonstrate their imaginary owners world view while simultaneously allowing us to see their lived lives from their perspective. Good writers commentate, speculate, summarise and dramatise so seamlessly that the reader simply experiences the story that unfolds, rarely noticing or appreciating the skill. Sometimes I set students loose with a marker pen on a photocopy of a favourite piece (yes, I know you can do the same thing digitally but I'm old school, old tech and indeed, increasingly, just old). I ask them to mark up the sentences where the writer lets the reader know who is doing what where and how. These are usually sentences where characters speak for themselves in dialogue or 'act' in some way, whether by making tea, making love or storming the barricades. If these acts are occurring in the real time of the narrative, what I call the 'story moment', then these episodes ' show' what is going on. I then ask them to mark up moments of commentary or introspection in another colour, then those sentences where actions are summarised: he finished drying the dishes', ' the siege continued for six long days,' those points in the narrative where time is quickly bundled up skipped over. Each writer has a different colour pattern, a different rhythm, but once you see how a particular writer manages these transitions between one story moment and the next you can understand how they manipulate the building blocks of narrative. It is then much easier to recognise what you are doing in your own writing.If you examine the work of your favourite writers in this way, you can learn from the best. They will show you how it is done and that is so much more effective than me, or anyone else, telling you about it.