As funny as the title sounds it’s one of the silly little answers TOO many use when seasoned writers tell less seasoned writers to show, don’t tell us the story. Ra ra ra, it’s not story showing after all. Can I say that this is one of the lamest arguments I’ve heard to date without sounding mean? No? Well, okay…I guess I’m all right with sounding mean then. It’s a lame argument, lame as being feeble. Look, it’s like saying that you’re not a chef, you’re a cook because no one chefs, while everyone cooks. Well, if you want to get into an argument like that why don’t we just agree that you’re a typist, and not a writer since hardly anyone produces a manuscript by scribbling on paper these days – and haven’t since the advent of a manual typewriter.
Sure, my logic might have some minor flaws, but let’s set those aside for now and focus on the topic at hand. Being a writer is not a title, it’s a habit, a choice in profession, a passion, a desire being acted upon. What writers are ARE story-tellers, but rather than following in the ancient tradition of sitting around a campfire weaving myths, modern story-tellers wear keyboards out, develop various forms of ligament strain in their forearms, and harass the ever living shit out of publishing houses until someone somewhere caves. While the oral traditions have been traded in for more permanent forms, the fundamentals of the information which is embodied in the craft is still the same. We, as story tellers, make stuff up in a way that people find appealing and easy to believe and follow in the hopes that we won’t be tarred and feathered by the light of dawn for boring someone to death.
That reminds me of a little known but fun fact: Before Dr. Kevorkian, poor (ill-equipped) writers were sought out to tell their meandering and unending plots to desperate end-of-life-ers as an effort in assisting their suicide. It’s said that upon witnessing a struggling writer bore someone to death that the good doctor thought there had to be a better way.
Anywho… I could go on, but really you get it. Don’t you? It really doesn’t matter what the hell you call yourself, if you write you’re a writer and writers tell stories. So arguing the semantics is circular and doesn’t get us anywhere. So let’s stop.
As a writer, you’re ultimate goal is to show someone your story. To get your words so completely in the reader’s head that they see what you saw when you came up with the concepts, to have them invest in your characters, your plots, and your worlds, just as much as you did when you wrote them. That’s what writing is as an art form. Now, let me say that I started out and spent the better part of my life as a fine artist – painting, drawing, sculpting, digital art, carvings, photography…you name it and I had my hands in it. Classically trained too, so I got to really learn all of fun ins and outs of bringing concepts to fruition and using forms, colors, textures, and light as a way to manipulate the mental state and emotions of the viewers. So what I found I loved about writing above all other art forms to date is that with fine arts you REALLY rely on your audience to pick up on the cues and suggestions you’ve placed in your work, where with writing you’re literally manipulating the thoughts in someone’s head. Like right now, at this very moment as you’re reading these words, these are thoughts that I’ve poured out of my head and directly into yours. Ever think of it that way? Writers do. Crafters of the written word take a considerable amount of time out of their lives to understand not only how to adequately communicate their words legibly, but also to be able to manipulate your thoughts and feelings. We work VERY HARD to write things down in a way that anyone who picks up our texts will derive exactly what we want them to. It’s not anywhere near as easy as it sounds.
It takes a lot of trust on our part. When we send off our manuscripts to reviewing editors, agents, or even our critique partners, we trust them to glean exactly from our words what we want them to. Sometimes it even works out that way. But more often than not most of us need several edits and revisions before that can happen with the general public.
But the trust shouldn’t start there, and I think that’s where far too many writers go wrong. Trust in your readers should begin during the writing process – this is where showing a story and telling a story are CRUCIAL and fundamental components that when overlooked can and will derail the chances of submissions before the author can even hit send. By trust I mean that when you write a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole scene you should trust that your reader will understand your characters, your world, and your plot because you’ve thought them out at length.
My favorite way to illustrate this is through comic books. Yes, comic books. Graphic novels. Manga. Whatever you’d like to refer to, they all follow the methods of SHOWING not telling. If you’ve never read a comic book (boy are you missing out!) go to a store and pick one up, flip through it, and read a few pages. You might not understand the back stories and complete dynamic plots that these wonderful visual stories tell, but you will see my point illustrated in brilliant colors (or black and gray). Comic book writers and illustrators write their stories assuming and trusting that their readers will understand the world that they’ve built, right from the start. They wont sit there and hold their reader’s hand and explain something completely mundane which their reader will already understand. Nowhere will you find “Spiderman was a bespeckled young man attending high school which he really didn’t like because he got bullied. You see, Peter Parker was a scrawny kid that felt out of place because he was really smart.” No. All of that is telling. Sure you have visual cues that will inform you in graphic novels, but what they’re doing with pictures is what writers must do with words. To show this story the writer would use a scene set in the hallway of Peter’s high school. The writer would have Happy (a bully) knocking the books out of Peter’s hands and his glasses off of his face and then laughing at poor Peter as he scrambles to retrieve his things. A writer showing the story would show the emotions of Peter going through the scene, have other characters describe young Parker through dialogue, and have a conversation through the scene with the reader about what’s going on.
The writer must trust in both their own ability to fully conceptualize each and every scene, trust in their skills to aptly communicate the scene, and then trust in the reader to be willing to understand what their reading. The only way the writer can do the latter is by showing the reader the scenes, and not telling them what to think.
Showing a story is telling a story, it’s the real way to communicate fiction to readers.
Showing a story isn’t easy. It takes a lot of careful work, but all of that effort pays off big time once you get the hang of it.
Until next time,