Monday, March 22, 2010

Good Showing and Bad Showing

A couple weeks ago, I posted about when it’s okay to use telling in your story. Since then, I’ve had a few conversations with people about showing, and it turned into a question of good showing vs. bad showing.

There is a difference, and it’s basically this:
Good showing is when your characters are in a specific action.
Bad showing is when they're in a vague action.

Good showing in a novel is hard to spot, because it’s seamless to the story. It's what sucks you in and helps you to connect with the characters and their situations, and puts you directly into the story so you can experience it for yourself.

James entered the room quietly.
James slunk into the room.

Both sentences have the same meaning, and both are showing the reader how the character is performing the action. But the second paints a more vivid picture of both the circumstance and the character.

Let’s talk about adverbs. Everyone is always saying how adverbs are bad, and I agree, for the most part. In the first sentence, an adverb is used to describe how James enters the room. Technically, that makes it showing. But the action is not specific enough to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. If you need that specific picture in the reader’s mind, then you need to drop the adverb and describe the action in a way that brings out the character, the situation, and the story’s tone.

The best example of showing in a novel (that I've seen so far) is The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp. It shows an alcoholic teen in stark reality. Specifically, it shows how the main character, Sutter, is an alcoholic through his actions, dialog, and interactions with others. Another alcoholic is probably different because he's a different person. That's what good showing is.

All aspects of writing are so connected that it's really hard to separate them. Therefore, some aspects of Show vs. Tell seep into characterization, pacing, structure, and a whole lot of other things. You have to keep these things in the back of your head as you write, and that’s why it’s SO HARD to get everything right. It’s also why you can’t write a really great book in one draft, but that’s a topic for another day. :)


Bish Denham said...

Excellent point, Tabitha! As writers there are so many things to remember, so many nuances....

Marcia said...

All aspects of writing are so connected that it's really hard to separate them.

So true. And yet we need some ability to separate them in order to know what each entails and figure out where our story isn't working. It's no wonder a lot of people rewrite only one aspect per revision.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I needed this reminder.

Laura Pauling said...

I think it's really hard to separate any aspect of writing because they all are so heavily dependant on one another. Show and Tell sounds so easy, but in reality, is hard.

Candyland said...

I love that you posted examples. I've seen a few articles where they just talk about it, but are vague, like the example they're trying to convey!

popsicledeath said...

Great point that there's a difference between good showing, and bad showing, and being specific. Your examples confused me, though. Aren't they just telling? You told us who was doing what where, and how. But I didn't feel 'shown' anything, just told about an action. Maybe the showing was just too vague, still?

For instance, we're told it's James. Wouldn't showing have shown him, so we realized it was James, without having to be told? Maybe James is tall with red hair:

"The tall man with red hair slunk into the room."

Now I can SEE him, and I know it's him without needing told who's doing the action.

And 'slunk' might mean different things for different people. As with your The Spectacular Now example, wouldn't James slink differently than other people? So, shouldn't that be shown more clearly, more specific?

"The tall man with red hair crouched low and tiptoed into the room."

There, now I feel we have a better vision of him slinking, and the way HE slinks. Others, ninjas especially, might slink by sliding into a room while hugging the walls, and good ninjas might even doing it while scaling along the ceiling. So, isn't it important to really SHOW exactly how James slinks?

And, we're told 'into' the room, but we don't SEE how far, or whether 'into' is being used in the way that he technically crossed the threshold, or really made some distance into the interior of the room. It's vague, and could mean a lot of things, so maybe we could see it better:

"The tall man with red hair crouched low and tiptoed through the painted white door jambs until he was standing in the middle of the room."

Now I've really got a 'show' going on in my head! I know it was 'into' because I was shown this, not just told! I think I'm getting it.

Hrm, but what kind of room was it... maybe that should be more 'shown' than just told it was a room?

"The tall man with red hair crouched low and tiptoed through the painted white door jambs until he was standing in the middle of the BEDroom."

But we should probably 'show' that it's a bedroom, not just 'tell' that it is:

"The tall man with red hair crouched low and tiptoed through the painted white door jambs until he was standing in the middle of the pink room, next to the bed his daughter sleeps in at night."

There, that's better. I've really got some clear images being 'shown' in my mind now. We know it's James from the description, know it's a bedroom because we can see the pink walls and bed.... wait, what kind of bed is it, I wonder... I'd like to be 'shown' the bed... and how tall is he... and what shade of pink... these could all be shown better, more specifically... argh, I don't think I'll ever understand how to show well.

Tabitha said...

Sorry I've been MIA - been on vacation, and just got back yesterday.

Bish - yeah, there sure are. Writing seems like it should be easy, but all these nuances make it exceptionally difficult.

Marcia - I revise that way, too. It breaks things down into manageable chunks, and when I'm done I read the whole thing to make sure all the parts are fitting together.

Jane - thanks! Glad this was helpful!

Tabitha said...

Laura - so, so true. That dependence makes it hard to figure out the real areas that aren't working, too. It may seem like one thing, but really be something else. Getting it right is very difficult!

Candyland - I've seen articles like that, too, and the explanation given is often verbose and unnecessarily confusing. I hope you found the examples here helpful. If not, let me know and I can try to post something clearer.

Tabitha said...

Popsi - you don't have to 'show' everything in one sentence. If you do, then your story will get bogged down in unnecessary details. But if you focus on what is necessary for your reader to see, then the details will come out naturally.

In this example, it's not necessary to know what James looks like, or even what kind of room he's entering. But it is necessary to know *how* he enters the room. So that's all there is to this example.

In the last conversation you and I had, you said that showing needs context, because you can't bog the reader down with too many details at once. I think you've just illustrated the perfect example of this.