Writing Q&A 2: Show, don't tell; time transitions
Published: October 11, 2006
|Q: I keep hearing the advice "show, don't tell," but I'm not quite sure what it means. Can you explain?|
A:The distinction between showing and telling is vital. Over the long haul, it's the difference between the reader being inside the story, experiencing each moment, and being outside, getting just the gist.
You can "tell" the reader about a character with direct statements of fact and interpretation, like this:
At the party, Melissa was in a foul mood and the revelers annoyed her.
It's more dynamic and interesting, though, to let the reader "see" Melissa's foul mood and annoyance for himself:
When a gaggle of girls half her age came out on the balcony to smoke, Melissa made her way to the sliding glass door, shoving past the one in a strapless dress and shamelessly high heels so that the girl had to grasp onto her friend's shoulder to keep her balance.
Here, the reader is standing out on the balcony with Melissa, acting as witness and making interpretations and conclusions based on what unfolds. This provides a deeper understanding of Melissa's personality, too. Another character might have shot silent glares when her sanctuary was taken over. Still another might have let out an open mouthed roar at the gaggle of girls.
Let's take a look at another example. In Tim Gautreaux's "Dancing with the One-Armed Girl," Iry stops his car to pick up Claudine, a hitchhiker:
"You need a ride?"
"Yes." She was pale, late thirties or so, with dark wiry hair spiked straight up in a tall, scary crew cut, and tawny skin. He thought she looked like a woman he'd once seen on TV who was beating a policeman with a sign on a stick. She seemed very nervous. "But I was hoping for a ride from a woman," she said.
"I can't afford no sex-change operation," he told her. "That your car?"
She looked back down the road. "Yes. At least it was. A man just pulled off who made all kinds of mystifying mechanical statements about it, saying it'd take three thousand dollars' worth of work to make it worth four hundred. I guess I'll just leave it." She sniffed the air inside the Jeep. "It's awfully hot and I hate to pass up a ride."
Claudine's apprehension is imbedded in her actions. It's in her dialogue, too, when she tells him she was hoping for a ride with a woman. At the same time, she's rather chatty, talking about the man who made "mystifying mechanical statements," and she's weighing the dangers of a ride with Iry versus sitting out in the heat. So, she might be hesitant, but she's not terrified. The collection of specific details, action and dialogue reveal precisely how Claudine feels, much more so than a more general line of telling could. (There's much more that's shown in this passage, too, including the great description of Claudine. In just two sentences she springs to life.)
The oft-used phrase "show, don't tell" might leave some writers feeling like there's no room in fiction for telling. That's not true. It's a useful and succinct way to share information the reader needs to know. Still, you should rely mostly on showing. Let the reader inside the story to experience each moment just as the characters do.
|Q: How do I jump from one time to another without confusing the reader|
ASometimes, the direct route is the best:
Later they danced.
Three months passed before Jim saw Shelly again.
In late spring of 1982, she took a train west.
With novels that are particularly sweeping in time and place, some authors will use headings to indicate the shift, as Kiana Davenport does in Song of the Exile: "Honolulu, mid-1930s." Don't let headings stand in for setting, though. It's still important to create a sense of place and time.
The direct route isn't always the best choice. Used too often, it can feel repetitious. Sometimes it's even awkward, like when the jump takes place in a character's thoughts:
She stood at the window, thinking back twenty years to the day her father left.
In this case, a trigger can help make the transition smoother:
Outside, two sparrows hopped from branch to branch, shaking the broad leaves. When they stilled, it was as if they'd not been there at all. She knew this sort of invisibility. She'd been climbing the old crab apple tree the afternoon her father left.
Almost anything can be a trigger. Mary Gaitskill used a character's habit of stroking his nose hairs in "Tiny, Smiling Daddy" to move back in time and chart the change in his daughter through her reactions to his habit as she grew up.
Don't forget the power of well-written summary to ferry the reader thought days, seasons, and even years. In Davenport's Song of the Exile, Keo, a budding musician, has been invited to go to New Orleans to play, but he's insecure about it:
DeSoto arranged his working passage on a freighter through the Panama Canal. His friends from the Royal took up a collection. Keo lost his nerve, returned the money, canceled all his plans.
Time has clearly passed and so has Keo's confidence, and that's one great benefit of summary: you can use it to give a glimpse of what happens in between the jumps.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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