Writing Rules and Fantasy: Show, Don’t Tell
It’s NaNo month, so it seems like the perfect time for some thoughts on the writing craft, beginning with the most often used of all writing commandments: Show, Don’t Tell. This is the first in a planned series of articles about common writing rules and how these rules apply to writing fantasy. These are the rules that are repeated over and over in advice forums and on internet writing sites, but when misunderstood or applied too vigorously can be meaningless or even damaging to your writing. I hope that I can shed some light on these rules and show how they apply (and when they don’t) to fantasy writing
Show, Don’t Tell
If writing rules were a pantheon of gods, ‘Show Don’t Tell’ would be in charge, the Lady of the Great Red Editing Pen hurling lightning-bolts of fiery disapproval down on the heads of writers everywhere.
In my opinion, this is one of the most important, but also the most often misunderstood and misinterpreted writing rules. This is perhaps because the wording of the rule is somewhat baffling. Writers are storytellers. Tellers. If you want to be shown something, shouldn’t you watch a movie instead? A writer has to tell the reader what happens, or there isn’t going to be a story at all.
In fact, the rule should probably be phrased more like this: ‘Tell through story – with emotion, action, dialogue and images – rather than simply stating’, but admittedly that doesn’t sound nearly as snappy.
So what does it mean?
Let’s start with an angry man called Sam. I can let the reader know that Sam is angry by simply stating it. “Sam was angry.” This is what is meant by ‘telling’. Alternatively, I can present evidence that Sam is angry without ever actually stating that he is. I might say “Sam clenched his fists and glared at me”, or “Sam slammed his hands down on the table”, or “Sam pursed his lips, breathing heavily.” I might decide to have Sam express his rage by hurling his chair across the room, or instead simply observe that he has raised his voice. These would all be examples of ‘showing’. In them, I have not stated that Sam is angry, but have let the readers figure this out for themselves.
Why is it actually important?
Does it really matter how the reader finds out that Sam is angry? In fact, by simply telling the reader that he is, the writer has actually made things clearer, another writing rule that is often pushed as being very important. The answer to this is that ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is in fact vitally important, because it is exactly what separates writing from merely relating a summary of events.
“John was walking down the street one day. It was raining and he was cold. He saw a baker’s shop and decided to stop to buy a hot pie. He had a conversation with the baker about warm summer holidays. John then carried on walking down a narrow alley. It was dark and he felt nervous.”
This reads more like the author’s plot notes – an outline or summary rather than a fully fleshed out story. At the moment it’s lacking all the bits in-between: how the events unfold, atmosphere, the world around the characters, dialogue. These are the things that make a story come alive. If a writer does too much stating instead of describing what happens, telling instead of showing, then it will feel like an outline or a summary to the reader. It will be matter-of-fact and devoid of life.
One of the huge problems with this is that a matter-of-fact telling will lack emotion. “A monster appeared. John was scared and ran away from it.” This tells us what happens, but we don’t feel what happens. Showing helps add tension, drama, suspense and satisfaction.
There are other advantages to showing rather than telling. Consider angry Sam again. If we are told that Sam is angry, then all we know is that Sam is angry. But if Sam glares at another person, then we have an idea who has made Sam angry. If Sam purses his lips or clenches his fists, then we can see that Sam is not only angry, he is trying to suppress it. If he throws things, then he’s really mad. Perhaps he’s a violent man, or maybe he just feels so helpless and ineffectual in his rage that he needs to take it out on the furniture. By showing the reader the way in which Sam is angry, the writer is actually giving more information about Sam and his situation.
Finally, showing encourages more description, imagery, metaphor, etc. In this way, it can (though this is certainly not always the case!) lead to better writing.
How does it help the fantasy writer?
Fantasy stories will often include some very odd and unfamiliar things – from people, creatures and places, to magic and strange technology – more so than most other genres. A fantasy story will naturally be quite heavy on description. The reader may need more help picturing certain things than they would in another book. Remembering the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule will help to keep descriptions interesting and dynamic.
A fantasy writer may also feel the need to tell the reader what everything does and how everything works, but in most cases this is better shown than told.
“Tally whipped out her shocksabre and stabbed it into the hedgegoblin. A shocksabre was an evil-looking sword that pulsed with magical electricity, giving its victims a sharp shock with every strike. A hedgegoblin was a small, vicious type of goblin that liked to sleep under hedges and attack lone travellers.” In this case, rather than tell the reader what a shocksabre does, the writer could show them instead. As for the hedgegoblin, does this really need an explanation at all?
“Tally whipped out her shocksabre and stabbed the hedgegoblin. A pulse of magical electricity shot out of the sword’s tip, causing the creature to yelp and clutch at its singed snout.” This conveys everything we needed to know about the shocksabre, as well as providing some clues as to what a hedgegoblin looks like; it’s a ‘creature’, not a man, and has animalistic features such as a snout.
An extension of this is that the fantasy writer might be tempted to explain everything about their world in abundant detail. Here, the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule will help the fantasy writer avoid one of the most annoying things that can happen in any story: the dreaded Info-Dump. An Info-Dump is that part of a story that is either completely overloaded with exposition or technical explanation, or that presents the information in one sudden textbook-like paragraph that makes you feel like you’ve briefly jumped out of the story into a history book or user’s manual.
In order to keep the story flowing properly, this information should ideally be presented in small bits that are revealed naturally rather than forced on the reader. For example, rather than breaking off from the story to explain that this country has been at war with that country, what started the war and how it concluded, and how this has affected the current population, consider showing the reader that there has been a war through certain clues – old conscription posters, border walls that are no longer patrolled, burned crop fields that are just now beginning to yield again, suspicious and jaded characters, etc. Perhaps have characters mention the war in dialogue, but never simply insert an Info-Dump into dialogue and think that this makes it alright:
“Helen, remember how there was that really horrible war that lasted for ten years and was caused by Paris stealing Menelaus’ wife, and the Greeks laid siege to the city of Troy and loads of really great heroes died including Achilles and Hector, and then the Greeks came up with a plan to hide in a wooden horse, and the Trojans took it into the city and then all the Greek soldiers popped out and slaughtered everyone?”
“Of course I remember, you idiot; I was there.”
Finally, fantasy will often include a lot of action and fight scenes. Showing will prevent this action from becoming a long, emotionless list of things that happened.
Okay, so when can I ignore the rule?
Here’s where it gets a little confusing, because in many cases it is actually alright to tell instead of show. In fact, it might be preferable to do so. If a writer is too afraid to say anything simply, then descriptions will quickly become ridiculous, or worse, sound like a cryptic crossword clue. “Her dress was the colour of nature’s greatest plant, which covers fields through summer and winter alike.” Yikes. You mean, “her dress was the colour of grass”, or better yet, “her dress was green.” It’s okay to state things like this, and a writer will do this a lot through the course of a book.
Deciding when to show and when to tell is about balance, emotion, and pace. Stopping to describe everything in a fight scene, for example, is a bad idea. Too much telling or too much showing in one go might read as clunky or jarring. Telling an action sequence could make it seem too removed, risking the reader not caring enough or feeling no tension. But showing an action sequence could be too wordy and slow.
This is where a writer can use the tricks of showing and telling to achieve a better result: “Rob injured Charles. Charles cried out in pain.” This is telling; the advantage is that it is quick and to the point. We can make it better by showing how Charles was injured, but we will need to remember to keep it as brief as possible so that the pace is not sacrificed. “Rob slashed Charles across the ribs. Charles cried out in pain.” Here, the showing of the injury is combined with the telling that Charles is in pain.
The rule ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is an important one. It reminds us to keep our writing interesting, emotional and character-driven. It reminds us to avoid Info-Dumps. But it is also just as important to remember that when it comes to ‘Show, Don’t Tell’, it’s the spirit behind the rule, rather than the exact letter of the rule, that should be followed. As with a lot of other things in writing it’s all about balance and flow, and it is ultimately up to the writer’s best judgement to decide when they will tell, and when they will show. And remember, rules like ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ are not unbending commandments; they’re just guidelines really!