I) Eliza’s Heard Enough
One of my favorite theatrical scenes comes from the 1964 musical, My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle is being verbally smothered by Freddy as he rapturously sings to her of his undying love. Eliza endures it for as long as she can, but finally interrupts him:
Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through; first from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above; if you’re in love, Show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire; if you’re on fire, Show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night! Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight!
Anyone who’s ever been in love’ll tell you that! This is no time for a chat!
Haven’t your lips longed for my touch? Don’t say how much, Show me! Show me!
Don’t talk of love lasting through time. Make me no undying vow. Show me now!
Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme! Don’t waste my time! Show me! (Emphasis added.)
Eliza Doolittle nails it. There are times when mere words are not enough. We must show our readers what we mean. When we communicate truth, especially in fiction, we often call it “telling” a story or “telling” the truth when telling should actually be the least of our concerns. Put simply, merely telling a story, or telling the truth quickly becomes boring and robs the audience of a fully interactive and influential experience. Showing our readers the stories and truths we want to express allows them to bring their “better halves” and make more memorable connections. Even in non-fiction, the same principle holds: if all we do is preach and pontificate about the truths we proclaim, we run the risk of repelling and alienating our audience. They may feel bullied, condescended to, or even manipulated. It’s much better to show the application and beauty of Truth through engaging content and methods.
II) Fenrix the Pie-loving Warlord?
Many times, you may be tempted to engage in telling and excuse it as “worldbuilding” or “plot exposition.” It’s easy to see the allure — you might want to create a rich and complex backdrop for the action, or build a character’s backstory, or insert a vital plot device that will be important later on:
Thirty-seven year old, one-grey-eyed, 6 foot 2 inch, barbarian master-warlord, Fenrix Killjoy loved pie. Especially his paternal grandmother’s pumpkin pie. In her young adulthood, Ellenia KIlljoy’s pies and entrees had won awards every year at the village autumn gathering, and her talents only seemed to increase with age. So superlative were her foodstuffs, that they became a matter of pride for the whole Killjoy clan. In fact, the very first childhood fistfight Fenrix ever engaged in, twenty-three years prior to losing his left eye fighting against the tribe’s mortal enemies, the Leodicians, for control of the coastal regions, and thus most of the sea-trade in iron and furs, was sparked by the jealous insults of his then-rival, Orik Rhodet, after Orik’s mother’s spiced pork pottage took second place to Ellenia’s braised deer shoulder. Well, that and their disproportionate shares of the attention of Alyce Helmen, a winsome green-eyed girl who rejected both of them six years later and married Guinach Staden, the apprentice weapons-smith, thus enabling both boys to put their differences aside and become staunch allies.
Obviously, this is an extreme example, with plenty of jam-packed sentences, but look at all the details and info I’m telling the reader! However, can you visualize very much of Fenrix’s character and behavior? Maybe you imagined a generic “Viking-type warrior”, but aside from describing his family’s pride in Grandma’s cooking, which led to him punching Orik, and Fenrix later losing an eye in battle, did he actually do anything? What do you really know about the characters by the end of this passage?
An “info dump” like this would take much longer to show, buthere is a possible excerpt from later on:
“I’m coming! Stable your stallions!” Orik Rhodet shouted with a scowl as he rubbed the haze from his eyes and hastened to answer the thunderous pounding on his door. “What do you want at this ungodly…” he started to say as he opened it, but the stricken look on Alyce Staden’s face, and the flashing grey fire that animated Fenrix Killjoy’s one good eye, took Orik’s voice instantly.
“Guinach is dead,” Alyce said in a voice choked with sorrow and fury, “and they took Eyris.”
Orik faltered slightly on his feet and grasped the doorframe. “When?” he gasped as he motioned his friends into the house with him. He moved to retrieve his outer clothing and gird on his own furs and weapons. “What happened?”
“A Leodician raiding party struck the foundry tonight,” Fenrix growled as he paced the floor. The clan leader’s massive hands were unconsciously clenching and releasing imagined throats, “They took little Eyris away after…” He broke off and looked over at Alyce, reticent to speak the words in her presence.
“…After they slaughtered my husband,” she finished in a tight but dangerous whisper. Her chin rose and her green eyes swept her fierce gaze between the two warriors. “When we were growing together, you both promised me your hearts.” Her hand fell to the pommel of her sword. “Help me now, to bring back my daughter and avenge my husband.”
The story is now much more impactful and memorable. I want to know what will happen next, and I’m the one who wrote it! (*Files excerpt away for later.*) A lot of the “telling” from the info dump is now implied through action and context, even if some details are omitted. (Maybe Fenrix will encounter a substandard piece of pie at a tavern later. At that point, Grandma’s culinary prowess would be relevant!)
III) Would the Camera Catch This?
A great gauge of whether or not your writing is “showing” enough is to examine your scenes and ask yourself: “Would a movie camera be able to see this?” Consider my first exposition version. How much of it was “visible action”? If the camera can’t see it, and narrative “voice-over” has to provide it in the mental “screenplay”, I recommend you question its inclusion in the story — maybe you can rewrite the scene to reveal it through action. You literally get a better picture in my second, “in the house”, scene because the “camera” of your mind’s eye can see the scene and project the action and characters onto the “screen” of your imagination. Let me ask you:
- When does this scene in Orik’s house take place? Late at night? How can you tell?
- What do you visualize Fenrix and Alyce wearing when they appear on Orik’s doorstep?
- What does the clothing imply about the story’s setting, climate, and time period?
- Would you want to be on Fenrix’s bad side? Or Alyce’s? Why not?
- What does Orik’s initial reaction to Guinach’s death and Eyris’s kidnapping reveal about him?
- What about the fact that his instinctive second response is to reach for his weapons and armor?
- Why does Fenrix hesitate before verbalizing what happened to Alyce’s husband?
- What does this imply about his character and personality?
- Do you imagine Alyce to be weak? Is she sending these two men on a mission, or leading them?
Such showing development also inspires questioning, and draws readers deeper into the story, motivating them to keep turning pages. What do you presume or predict:
- Why was the foundry attacked? Why was Eyris taken?
- Why did Alyce go to Fenrix first, and why did they both come to recruit Orik?
- What shared history does this trio have, and what is the nature of their current relationship?
- What impact will this past history have on future events?
- Where will they start the pursuit, and why is it just the three of them going?
- Will they get Eyris back, unharmed?
IV) Preaching vs. Teaching
Another drawback to story-telling is that expressing and teaching truth this way can often morph into “preaching”. We usually think of preaching positively, as the clear expression of religious doctrines and so forth, but in such cases we have usually sought it out, know what we are “getting into”, and adjust our delivery and reception accordingly. Sometimes direct preaching is what the situation requires. Several years ago, the Ministerial Alliance in my county, composed of many different denominations, adopted the following verse from the Book of Mormon as its theme for that year:
"And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God." (Alma 31:5)
But when the expression of truth is overtly “pushy” and obvious in literary circumstances, the label takes on a negative connotation. If the approach is particularly ham-handed, the reader may feel lectured, condescended to, or even manipulated.
The “truths” that we speak, whether verbally or in print, are not just limited to moral verities and universal principles. Though truth includes these, they are also the feelings and beliefs and behaviors of our fictional characters. The telling of these truths can be painfully harsh and obvious when a writer simply tells us how characters feel, or overtly moralizes in narration. In truthspeaking situations, such heavy-handed “preaching” is counterproductive because it fails to really motivate or inspire readers to live the truth. The impact made may initially touch the reader, but as they say, “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Such “telling” often triggers a feeling of rebellion and resistance in the reader. When the purpose of truth-telling is to go on the attack and “pointedly point out bad points”; or to “score points” with an agenda that is selfish or self-righteous, preaching can result.
This is not to say that the stories we write can’t openly espouse true principles. Kentstead Media is dedicated to providing reading experiences that resonate with readers, change them, validate truth, and leave audiences considering how they might become better people, and this can be done without resorting to “preaching”. In a future post, we’ll get more specific about these strategies for storytelling and techniques for avoiding the cardinal sin of storytelling: boring the reader. When C.S. Lewis taught truth, he did so through figurative language and analogies. Christ’s parables told the truth through layers of symbolism and meaning — he created images that allowed the truth to speak directly to our souls. Authors must also come from a truthful, moral foundation.
V) Do Your Stories Effect Change, or Only Affect Change?
The best stories are those in which a realistic and relatable protagonist (or antagonist) experiences a genuine change and takes us along for the ride. But this change must be true to life, or at least to the world he or she inhabits.
Aristotle, in his Poetics, proposed the concept of Catharsis, in which the audience is purged and purified by witnessing the tragic fall of a character that they identify with. A similar thing happens when we create solid and sympathetic characters who change and overcome solid and realistic obstacles. When we follow Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom, or see the positive effects that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy have upon each other, or relive the childhood of Jem and Jean Louise Finch, or witness the growth and redemption of Jean Valjean, we are thrilled and uplifted. Story events, and developments such as these, can effect change in the reader as well. Many times, we can trace the turning points of our lives to the reading or encountering of truths and characters that elevate our thoughts or place us in confrontation with error.
You can’t fake change effectively — in life or in literature.
As in life, such character growth is best shown, rather than merely described and told by the author. You can’t fake change effectively, in life or in literature. If it is false and contrived, you are affecting, or imitating, genuine emotion and development. Whether it is a heroic protagonist, or a complex villain, characters who feel real to us are more motivating and memorable. When we cave in to the pressure of easy plots and shallow character arcs, narrate too much, or present characters who are cliché who never truly struggle or fail, we engage in “telling” and cheat our readers.
I will always remember an incident from my high-school Drama class: My classmates and I had been tasked with writing and performing a scene for the class, and one of my friends had poured her heart into a scene at a graveside. After she was done, our teacher paused briefly before saying, “Sentimentalist drivel.” We all gasped in shock. He went on to (kindlier) explain that the emotion wrung out in the scene had been “unearned” and calculated to take cheap shortcuts to move the audience. To be fair, we were just kids learning our craft, but our teacher cared enough to be honest with us. It made a lasting impression on me about the need to be honest and show more than tell in my storytelling.
VI) A Time for Everything and Everything in its Time
In many truthspeaking situations, showing, telling, and teachingall have a place, and even coincide. In writing fiction, some telling is unavoidable. Scene and setting changes may require some explanation at times, or technical terms may need definition, but the focus should be on showing as much as possible.
However, the world of a story should not require characters to tell each other things they would already know or take for granted. An example of such irrelevant “narrator-splaining” might include having two brutes in a tavern discuss magic over their mugs of ale, and having one tell the other, “Yes, and since magic is generated by the mana inherent in all life, those who have the means of enhancing their capacity to absorb mana will be able to generate even more powerful spells!” The regular “brute-on-the-footpath” doesn’t sit around debating and enlightening his fellows on the intricacies of magical origins and practice.
In non-fiction, a greater focus on telling is acceptable and expected, but the challenge then shifts to discovering ways to tell without heavy-handed preaching, such as: sharing personal experiences, sharing non-biased statistics, and especially calling on appropriate humor. Non-fiction showing is possible. In both fiction and non-fiction, a proper blend of show and tell will enable you to invite the reader’s “better half”, as we have explored previously.
At a basic level, recall the books of your childhood. Whether they were Aesop’s fables, stories of Anansi the Spider, or “Little Red Riding Hood”. Would you consider these to focus on “Showing”, or are they more toward the “Telling” end of the spectrum? We don’t expect great plot development or deep characterization from such simple tales, and yet they teach moral and ethical life lessons such as patience, overcoming vanity, and “not talking to strangers”.
On a much more sophisticated level, Kentstead Media author Tawnee Saunders’s new book, How to Eat Your Best Life, is direct and clear in its communication of principles and affirmations — literally telling oneself truths — but it does not come across as “preachy”. The tone and content are engaging and instructive as they show readers how the principles can be implemented, and why they are powerful. Tawnee illustrates her affirmations, or truths, by sharing personal experiences and then she allows the reader to relate to her, and self-evaluate, before introducing food exercises that help the reader internalize the truths.
Take stock of the content and style of your own works in progress. Analyze the other stories you encounter as well, and learn to recognize the elusive balance that should exist between telling and showing. And when you find those narrative dead zones, make them show… or out they go.
As Eliza Doolittle sings in My Fair Lady,
Don’t talk of June, don’t talk of fall, don’t talk at all! Show me!
Never do I ever want to hear another word. There isn’t one I haven’t heard.
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream; say one more word and I’ll scream!
Haven’t your arms hungered for mine? Please don’t ‘expl’ine,’ Show me! Show me!
Don’t wait until wrinkles and lines pop out all over my brow!
Show me now!