Shorter rant with fewer points than usual. Hey, I can do that.
1) Tell neutral qualities and show them if you want to. Show moral ones.
I don’t mind it when the author introduces me to a character like so: “A tall, brown-eyed man with a broadsword over his shoulder and an easy manner of moving walked into the inn.” It’s certainly possible to show those qualities as well, like having the character duck to avoid the too-low doorway, but even those mentions usually get a bit that explains why the character had to duck. That’s okay. Height, weight, what a character looks like, what they’re wearing, what they’re carrying, are often easier to tell than show. You mention it, you get it out of the way, you go on.
Moral qualities, those qualities we’re supposed to judge the character on or like her for, are something I prefer shown. I hate, hate, hate the two most common methods of telling them: the omniscient narrator who says something like, “Though she did not know it, Elena had a manner of speaking that revealed wisdom beyond her years,” and the overheard conversation between two characters where they just happen to praise the protagonist’s courage, wisdom, loyalty, goodness, et bloody cetera. The first comes across as a refusal to commit to demonstrating the quality; the author just wants me to think Elena is wise, when in practice she may be an airhead. The second has the problems of the first, plus that old chestnut that most overheard conversations are not going to be relevant to the person hearing them, nor good information about that person if they are, plus the rendering of minor or secondary characters as cheerleaders for the protagonist and no more than that.
Want me to look at your character? I have no problem with telling in that case. Want me to like her? You’ve got an even chance, but without showing, it feels like the author attempting to stack the deck, and I’m much more likely to go the other way out of sheer contrariness. (Authorial shoving is the number one reason I put books down).
2) Telling’s virtues are often in clarity and directness.
It’s pretty easy to say:
“The correspondence theory behind emeralds and diamonds is simple.” Heinrick shrugged. “Both are the eyes of the moon god’s son, who was torn asunder in the early days of the world and flung to earth. His father could only recover his eyes, one green and one white, and he blessed them as jewels and hallowed them as sacred. He duplicated those eyes that the memory of his son might never perish. So we can attune one emerald to one diamond, and use them as our own eyes across far distances.”
It’d be a lot harder to show the legend, unless you resorted to one of those silly omniscient prologues. You can show the emerald and diamond working together, but even then, without some concrete explanation, your audience might give up in confusion. And you could show priests of the moon god valuing emeralds and diamonds, but sooner or later the legend would have to come out to explain why they’re doing it; otherwise, it’s just as likely that they’ll seem means of currency, not sacred.
What’s really fucking annoying is when the author gives a paragraph like the one above, and then does this:
Baldur blinked. “So the moon god’s son was totally destroyed, except for his eyes?”
Heinrick nodded. “Yes. And though his father searched for ages, he found no more of his son than the eyes.” He smiled softly. “It was said that that was why he hallowed them. His son was gone from the world, but his memory might live.”
Baldur bowed his head, struck by the sadness of the story. To have only jewels, however beautiful, left of an immortal son…
Notice the problem? Those next three paragraphs add nothing to the first one, unless you count Baldur’s personal reaction. They simply repeat and repeat the information the author’s already given. This is the main problem I have with telling—not that it gets used, but that authors destroy the clarity and conciseness of the explanation with repetition they really don’t need. Keep an eye on your exposition. Good portions of it can go, especially when the characters are in a dangerous situation and don’t have time to say everything twice.
3) Showing can get along without tags.
“Tags” is the name I’m using for the quick little explanations the authors often attach to objects, gestures, and phrases in a fantasy world. There is probably a technical name for this. I am too lazy to go try to find it.
All these are examples of tags, with the tag bolded:
He drew the chamberpot, which was meant for relieving oneself, from beneath the bed.
She smoothed her hair from her eyes, a sign of tiredness that Daylor knew well.
She grinned, winked, and said, “You’ll find out soon enough, kitten,” using the affectionate name that she had given Charlindro when she wasn’t much bigger than a young cat.
Some tags are more necessary than others. But a fully orchestrated showing can dispense with them. What needs to remain constant is the author’s commitment to that particular object, gesture, or phrase as serving the same purpose at all times.
He drew the chamberpot from beneath the bed and relieved himself.
She smoothed her hair from her eyes. Daylor frowned. He had noticed that she hadn’t slept well last night.
She grinned, winked, and said, “You’ll find out soon enough, kitten.” Charlindro scowled. Trust Miranda to bring up thoughts of baby blankets and infant helplessness with one word.
The link here is still present, but subtler, without telling the reader full out what it means. It respects the viewpoint more—a man who’s lived with chamberpots all his life is certainly going to know what they are—and can work in characterization along the way—Charlindro doesn’t like the nickname “kitten” and doesn’t like the thoughts it inspires, either, which are thoughts of youth and helplessness, and that says something about her. And it’s less bald.
If you are worried that lack of a tag might be too subtle, try to use it once and never again. It bores me when the author takes a step in the direction of showing, such as to give the tired woman a special gesture to indicate her weariness, and then promptly mentions, every single time, that this gesture means she’s tired. Or, worse, she scatters adverbs like “tiredly” as if they were going out of style.
4) Destroy the shout-outs.
These vary. They vary so much that I thought of giving them all different names, then said, “To hell with it” and gathered them here.
Shout-outs are the author taking possession of a character for a moment and telling the reader through his or her mouth what to think of this particular person/mood/moment/theme/scene. The conversation where two characters just “happen” to discuss how wonderful the protagonist is is an egregious example, but not, I think, actually the most common. The most common is when the author tells the reader the theme of the book in many slow careful words so that the reader will Get It.
“No,” said Charlindro, sitting up. “If we tell them the truth, think of the revolt that will follow.”
Daylor shook his head. “But how can we know how valuable truth is to each and every person in the world?” he demanded. “Truth is the lodestone of each of our hearts, the reason we are gathered here, the reason that we rise in the morning and go to sleep at night. Truth is the bread in our mouths and the air in our lungs when we drown in despair, the one thing that we may breathe and bring back to the surface with us. Truth is important, Charlindro, and not to be destroyed or denied because of what one person might choose. Every person in the world deserves the truth, sleeping, waking, rising, dying. Let us spread that truth.”
“I don’t think a revolt would follow,” said Hamartia.
- The fuck? They’re discussing battle strategy, then Daylor makes an emo speech, then they go right back to discussing battle strategy.
- That there’s some indigo language.
- Does Daylor actually believe this? Surprisingly often, the author chooses a completely inappropriate character to make the shout-out through.
- I bet truth is The Theme of the book, isn’t it.
I think it is always better to show themes rather than pound them into someone’s head, to establish moods instead of make a three-paragraph Speech of Despair, to demonstrate characters’ good qualities instead of trumpeting them, to suggest parallels with real-life events rather than actively jumping in the reader’s face and shouting “Support Kerry!” Yes, fantasy has a long and honorable tradition of criticizing real-world politics and governments—mostly in satire, where the expectations are rather different. If you have one shout-out in the middle of an otherwise deliberately not-relevant-to-real-world-politics-at-all high fantasy, you have a whole lot of useless trappings hanging around, or the shout-out is self-indulgence.
You can center a fantasy around one single theme. I think the best way is to put it subtly under everything, from characterization to description, until the reader figures it out because no matter where she turns, there it is, staring her in the face. Or you can have multiple themes, or books that don’t start out with a theme but find it as they grow (I prefer the last). But no shout-outs, please. They’re annoying.
5) Telling is often welcome after a long and convoluted process of secret-keeping.
The hero’s been slapped around, shot at, chased, lied to, screamed at, told he’s wrong by people who then refuse to explain why, and forced to hold people at swordpoint. When he finally finds the one person who can explain all the mess to him, he, and the reader, will often be in the mood for a long bout of telling, wherein he can actually get some goddamn answers.
These things are not, I think, the same as the endless conversations that Wise Old Mentors have with Young Dunderheads, because:
- Those conversations often take place too soon in the book. The author expects me to sit through pages and pages of telling when nothing all that mysterious or interesting has happened yet.
- They’re more like lectures than conversations. When the hero finally meets the one person who can tell him the truth, however, he’s gone through enough experiences and/or is pissed-off enough to hold his own as an equal participant.
- They often include information that’s not relevant at all, wherein the author lets her worldbuilding notes out to play. By contrast, the hero is going to be asking pointed questions about why people have slapped him, shot at him, chased him, lied to him, screamed at him, told him he’s wrong without explaining why, and forced him to hold them at swordpoint.
So don’t feel that you have to show every single aspect of the final revelation. Just look at where you put it in the book, and the content it actually has.
6) The equation is not as simple as showing=beautiful and well-written, telling=plain and poorly-written.
Something can be direct and still not poor. Something can be subtle and still poor (often because the author has contracted symbolitis).
I think this is more of a problem on telling’s side, actually. When authors do use exposition, they seem to have the idea that it doesn’t matter what they stuff in there, because it just has one purpose: to explain something. So they don’t characterize, they don’t think about reality (like whether people in the middle of a flight across the desert have the time to listen to this blather instead of getting to water and shade), they don’t use the scene to move the plot forward or do anything other than expostulate, and the prose is stiff and wooden compared to scenes where they do, actually, give a damn.
Pay attention to the language, by all means. Pay attention to what this scene is doing here. Telling isn’t evil. However, neither should it get a pass just because it’s telling. It should still sound like these people speaking these words.
Showing’s problem comes when the author takes off in flight to Mysticism and hits Bewilderment along the way. I’ve read numerous reviews of books and short stories that say something along the lines of, “I didn’t get the ending, but maybe that’s just me.” If only one person doesn’t get it, it might be just that person; if there’s a whole bevy of confused voices, I bet it’s the author’s problem.
Just because you can’t understand something does not mean that the something is profound.
It can also be beautiful, or moving, and yet, if it doesn’t demonstrate what the author wanted it to demonstrate, if it was meant to be clear and it’s not, it’s failed. No flights off into the wild purple yonder. Know what the purpose for the scene is, and the context it fits in in the story, and keep those in mind as well as the beauty of your language.
…That wasn’t shorter than normal.