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Tell me

May 30, 2013

“When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.” – Anton Chekhov

“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Storytellers don’t show, they tell. I’m sticking with that.” – Ashly Lorenzana

“I say fuck the old advice ‘show, don’t tell.’ It’s called story TELLING for a reason, and I’ll stick to it!” – Ashly Lorenzana

Hm, surely there must be some middle ground here.

For those of you who follow my fairly sporadic blog posts (this is an issue of time constraints and no reflection of commitment, so if you’re with me now please don’t go away) you’ll realise that I’m a student of the classic ‘show-don’t-tell’ concept and yes, this is primarily because I’m trying to get it just right in my own work.

So I’ve learned a thing or two, experimented with ways to show your reader a  particular character trait, or a scenario, or a location (actually I’ve not done much on the latter – if anyone wants to jump on that one I’d love to go along with you), but I wondered if it’s possible to show and tell. Or, more accurately, show through telling.

Let’s say I have a protagonist whose parents are struggling financially. And let’s suppose I don’t want to just come out and say that. Of course, I could have that lead character make some well-placed comment along the lines of, ‘We wouldn’t be having the family holiday to St. Lucia that year because times were hard for Mum and Dad.’ Which would be a little less clumsy than just pointing out that Max’s parents had been made redundant earlier in the year and were tightening the purse strings accordingly.

But just using speech doesn’t necessarily take away the exposition factor. I’m still just laying out facts, albeit trying to take the bluntness out by concealing them in dialogue.  Surely there must be a subtler way to show my readers by talking to them through my characters. I wondered if it was possible to use dialogue between characters without just surrendering to the old talking heads routine, which can come across as something like this:

‘Hey Dad, how’s things?’ Max asked as he slammed the front door behind him.

‘Oh, hi Max,’ his dad replied, looking up from the paper. ‘Yeah, not bad. There aren’t too many jobs around at the moment but, you know, something will come up. Until then we just have to keep a careful eye on our expenditure.’

Wouldn’t it be better to convey this without actually coming out and stating any facts? How can you get across to your readers that Max’s parents are a bit hard up right now, without having one of them actually state that? Is it better to show the consequences, still through dialogue, of their financial status? In which case, what about:

‘Hey Dad,’ Max said as he slammed the door behind him and dumped his bag by the shoe rack.

‘Oh, hi Max,’ his dad replied, looking up from the paper. ‘Good day?’

‘Not bad.’ Max paused in the doorway to the kitchen, as though reluctant to step across the threshold. ‘Um, a couple of my friends are going to the cinema and I was wondering if I could go with them.’

Max’s dad stood up, patting his pockets. ‘Oh, right. Okay, sure, yeah. We’ll sort something out. Uh, when are you going?’

‘Well, in about an hour. If it’s okay.’

‘On a school night?’ Max’s dad countered, as though to discourage the idea, something he felt immediately guilty for.

‘It’s Friday though. Um, I have some money upstairs. I’ll get it.’

‘No, no it’s alright. Let me speak to Mum okay? I’m sure we can find something. I just don’t have any cash on me at the moment.’

Forgive the poor quality of the writing but I’m putting this together as I go here (I know, a good blogger should plan their posts a bit better). But does that give a better feeling to the family’s financial status?

In that way, is it possible to show through telling?

If anyone fancies an exercise in writing the same scene, showing the constraints Max’s parents are under, please go ahead and post your version. I’m sure they’ll be better than mine and hopefully we can all learn something from it (or at the very least, I will!)

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