Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Show vs. Tell - A Different Take

Show vs. Tell - A Different Take
by Dave Swinford
IWW Administrator

A majority of prose is written to inform, and the intent is to engage the reader's intellect. The basic sentence structure states or sums up, connecting one statement to the next to lead the reader to some sort of conclusion. Indeed, all the sentences I have so far used (including this one) are statements that sum up and thereby inform.

In a very real sense, informative prose summarizes the key information it wishes to convey. By contrast, the intent of fictional prose is to engage the reader's imagination. This cannot be accomplished without also engaging the intellect, but what makes fiction succeed is its ability to create an illusion that the events being described are happening as the reader reads about them. Fiction does not simply summarize what happened. Fiction attempts to dramatize the events in a manner that draws the reader into the fictional reality.

Therefore, my own personal version of "Show, don't tell" has become:

Dramatize, don't summarize.

Since most of our communications are intended to inform, it's not surprising that we have a natural tendency to summarize rather than dramatize. In a sense, all statements summarize, but some summarize more completely than others. Perhaps a few examples will best illustrate my point.

"He went to the window and looked out." This is a summary statement. One way to test this assertion is to apply what I think of as the "short test," which consists of the simplest sentence or Actor - Action or Noun - Verb structure.

"He went" - does this engage the imagination? Does it make a picture? Can one see him "wenting"?

If "went" is too general and non-specific, perhaps we can improve by selecting a more active verb.

"He walked to the window and looked out."

Short test: "he walks" - can one imagine him walking? Can one picture it? If so, this is a more dramatic way of stating/describing his actions.

The good thing about "walk" is the number of synonyms (part of why I chose this example).

"He strolled to the window"

"He crept to the window"

"He swaggered to the window"

"He ambled to the window"

"He staggered to the window" and more.

When the short test is applied, all these verbs produce specific images. Even more importantly, the images have specific emotional connotations. "He strolled" feels quite different from "He crept" or from "He crept" or "He swaggered."

Successful fiction also involves the reader's emotions. Therefore, if one can select verbs that engage the imagination and involve the emotions, shouldn't those be the preferred choice, especially if one's intent is to dramatize rather than summarize?

Just in case I've only managed to confuse the issue, here's one final example that may clarify.

Jim hit Sam in the nose." (a summary statement)

Jim poked Sam in the nose. (a more active verb, a verb one can more easily imagine/picture, but still basically a summary)

Jim threw a stiff right jab, catching Sam flush on the nose. Cartilage crunched and Sam's head snapped back. Blood spurted, splattering crimson drops onto Sam's white tee shirt.

"Not fair, man." Blood oozed between Sam's fingers. "You broke my node."

Jim flexed his right hand, barely aware of his stinging knuckles.

"That'll teach you not to mess with my computer." (dramatic and full of sensory details)

If possible, dramatize rather than summarize, and if you need to inform the reader with description or exposition or narrative, use as many dramatic verbs and sensory details as possible so as to more fully engage the reader's imagination. When in doubt, apply the "short test."

1 comment:

bobsanchez1 said...

While I agree with Dave in principle, I don't agree that every action requires the most vivid verb possible. It really depends on the context: does it matter how the person goes to the window? Maybe, maybe not. If all you need to convey is that somehow your character made his way to the window, then just get him there. You don't have to dwell on whether he danced, pranced, ambled or shambled. He got there, period. And if his trip to the window is uneventful, then it's a bogus argument to ask "how do you picture 'wenting'?" Everybody know s how to picture it: he put one foot in front of the other. My opinion is that telling is an honorable and much-maligned part of writing. The trick--the difficult trick--is knowing when you must show and when you must tell.

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