One of my earliest lessons in “show, don’t tell” — or, as I prefer to think of it, “imply, don’t say straight-out” — came from Stephen King’s novel ‘The Dead Zone’. A salesman walks along a country road and a dog gets in his way.
The man kicks the dog.
The guy is a douchebag, but King is too good a writer (some of his critics notwithstanding) to say, “Here’s this dude walking up the road, and by the way, he’s a total douchebag.” So we see him commit canine abuse, and later on, when he goes into politics and becomes increasingly powerful, we know we’ve got a problem.
Things that a less-experienced writer might do:
1. Show too many things.
I used to do this. Writing instructors and workshops place such an emphasis on showing, such an emphasis on detail, that we pack our paragraphs with five specific details when one or two would suffice; we show our protagonist doing five actions displaying five different character traits when only one is relevant.
King showed us the dude kicking the dog, because the dude is mean and crazy, and we need to know that. It’s crucial to the development of the story.
King could have also shown us what the guy ate for breakfast, and the careless way he brushed his teeth, and how he didn’t bother to put on deodorant.
Except those things don’t serve the higher purpose of the story that King wants to tell. The reader does not need to be overly educated about the dude’s hygiene.
A detail should imply something. It should gesture at something bigger than itself.
We go through life everyday experiencing a million details. We are oblivious to most of them (if some of us more than others). The details that filter through to our conscious awareness say a great deal about who we are, how we process the world and what we care about. The details that filter through any narrative should be just as revealing.
When a detail implies a piece of the bigger picture, it has meaning. That makes it interesting.
If it’s just a detail, then it clutters the narrative, slows it down, and bores the reader.
2. Tell too many things.
A dude walks down a country road and kicks a dog. That’s the scene. Many aspiring writers, however, seem reluctant to jump into the scene or shape a scene at all.
A scene is the basic building block of the novel. It is, in many ways, a novel in microcosm. It builds to its own little climax or turning point. Something happens that reveals something that the reader needs to know. The story moves forward.
But the writer won’t get to the scene. The writer “talks too much”: he gives us too much set-up, about what kind of day it was and how when the dude got out of bed that morning he didn’t know that several hours later he would kick an innocent dog. The writer might tell us how the dude doesn’t like dogs, even though he had a terrier named Jack when he was growing up, which might lead to a flashback about when the dude was a kid and running through the woods and got home so late for supper that his mother was annoyed and his stepfather yelled at him. The writer might tell us the history of the countryside the dude is traveling through, or the fact that the dog he kicks is a German Shepard, which segues into a short history of German Shepards, and into the backstory of the boy who owns that particular German Shepard but forgot to close the gate when he left for his baseball game that morning because he was too excited about the girl he knew who would be watching from the stands.
I’m being a bit facetious here, but you get the point. The reader gets a lot of information, but doesn’t get the scene itself, or why any of that information is important.
Show us the stuff that’s important.
Show us the stuff that makes some kind of point.
The space on your page is like valuable real estate. Give it away with great care. Better yet, don’t give it away at all: make everything pay for its position.
3. Wax lyrical.
This is the equivalent of a singer like Christina Aguilera who wants to show off her range instead of just singing the damn song.
When Aguilera was making her first album, she objected to a song that her producers wanted her to include, saying that it didn’t demonstrate her talent as a vocalist. The song was “Genie in a Bottle” and became a huge hit and launched her career. It’s also a good and catchy pop song. What Aguilera forgot, or hadn’t realized yet, is that people don’t care whether or not you can hit a high C.
They don’t care about you, but the journey you take them on, the experience you provide for them.
They care about the song.
They care about the story.
So tell the freaking story.
When the writer-equivalent of Aguilera wants to demonstrate “her talent as a vocalist”, we’ll get long lovely sentences about the quality of the sunlight. We’ll get clever wordplay. We’ll get meditations on nature, reflections on the souls of animals, word-streams of interior consciousness.
We won’t get a scene, but a poetic abstraction, a kind of mental dreamscape.
Like details, like backstory, like flashbacks, like dream sequences, lyricism has to be earned. It needs to be there for a reason. It needs to serve the story, not your ego, not your vision of yourself as a scholar and a poet.
Because anything that doesn’t serve the story is boring.
And a bored reader will toss your book aside and go to the movies instead.