Show, Don’t Tell…

…And don’t let your head hit the desk out of exasperation! No, really, don’t. There’s glue on there.

I am not about to tell you that you should ‘show’ someone with clenched fists rather than ‘tell’ your readers that the character is angry. Nuh-uh. No sirree. I figure that, when you’ve heard it once, you don’t need to hear it again. It’ll work its way into your brain at some point or other.

Instead, I am here to tell you when you shouldn’t do either of those things, because sometimes, when you show your readers, you’re really telling them. (Shock horror, right?)I am writing this post because, yesterday, I was reading a book. If you’re good little boys and girls and creatures, I might even review that book for you when I finish reading it. But that’s beside the point. The author of this book was nice enough to show me that one of the characters was hiding something rather than tell me, which was sweet of them… but I don’t think I really needed either of those things.

Let’s say this book was about a girl called Boff. Boff is talking to her best friend, Hoff (not the Baywatch one). Boff says, ‘Oh, isn’t that guy cute?’. We are then shown Hoff; ‘A look of guilt passed quickly over Hoff’s face to be replaced by blandness, as if it had never been there’, or some such. I don’t know, I’m not a writer. Ahem.

Now, are we going to be surprised to find out that Hoff has gone off and slept with the guy? I don’t think so.

But what can you do? Readers are almost certainly going to know more about the happenings of the story than the characters — in YA paranormal romance, for example, if there is a mysterious-acting fitty, the reader knows before reading more than the blurb that the mysterious-acting fitty is some sort of supernatural creature and the girl is going to end up going out with him even though he could DRINK HER BLOOD or something equally ridiculous — so what on earth would be the point in not spelling out stuff like Hoff’s sexual habits?

Umm, maybe just absolutely everything?

As readers — and people — we like to be surprised. Surprises are always good, whether they’re birthday parties you don’t know about, water-fight ambushes or the shock killing off of all the characters that meant most to you, you’re going to like a surprise. If Hoff hadn’t looked all guilty-like, we would have been jumping with surprise-joy when Boff walked in on her and the fit dude.

So why do writers put in stuff like that? Why are we all such total idiots when it comes to our readership and their intelligence?

Well, for those micro-plotters around the world, I suppose it’s a compulsion, like making ‘hmm’ noises all through The Vampire Diaries when you’ve watched it but your mum hasn’t. If you know the plot before anyone else does, you’re going to have to put just a teensy ikkle bit of foreshadowing in there, aren’t you? I mean, that’s the point of plotting, isn’t it? Pwease?

(That is how I imagine a micro-plotter speaks to their conscience, in case you were wondering.)

And what about the rest of us, the ‘pantsers’, as I’ve heard us be called (be called? Really, Mara, you lost your grammar-sense-ness have?)? Why do we add silly little show things instead of surprising our readers? Is it because we hate the people we pretend to love?

It’s certainly possible. But not the likeliest option. I think that we like our readers to know that there might just be pain walking towards them in the future. I think we like the tension it gives, and I think we like imagining readers shouting ‘I knew it! I knew it!’ like they’ve only watched half of Broadchurch.

The problem is, though, most people either watched all of Broadchurch or none of Broadchurch, and adding cliche clues in is what I like to call ‘writerly pride’. And we all know that pride comes straight before plunging into the deep depths of an allegory chasm.

So, in short, us writers have to stop being selfish and just live with the fact that none of our readership are stupid enough to fall for the ‘maybe I just imagined it’ add-on.


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