Discussion for Writers: Show v. Tell on the Molecular Level

Today I boost the ego of wannabe writers everywhere by demonstrating that nobody, not even David Farland, is perfect. Let the Nit Pick begin!

David Farland is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author who has penned nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels for both adults and children. Along the way, he has also worked as the head judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, as a creative writing instructor, as a videogame designer, as a screenwriter, and as a movie producer.   http://www.davidfarland.net/about/

I knew David Farland as Dave Wolverton back when we took writing classes together as students at Brigham Young University. I still remember him stopping me in the hall of  Harmon building and giddily telling me he’d won some prize in some national SF contest I knew nothing about. But I could tell by his demeanor that it was B-I-G. That win shot him toward a wonderful and prestigious writing career while I remained in the wannabe ranks, pleasantly busy raising kids and reading Dave Wolverton’s science fiction and later Dave Farland’s fantasy and, now, his historical fiction of a Mormon stripe. I’m a big fan, even if I do take him to task a bit in my recent review of his In the Company of Angels, which I posted here on July 16, 2011. In tribute to the science guy I knew way back when, I had to get something scientific sounding in the title of this Discussion for Writers, even if it is a stretch. And so today, we’ll look at Show v. Tell on the Molecular Level.

We all know that, in layman’s terms, a molecule is the smallest unit of a thing that maintains the properties of the thing. Remember how your 2nd grade teacher called it nature’s building block? Stories, of course, have many aspects that could be dubbed building blocks, but for my purpose today, I’ll use the paragraph as the metaphoric molecule. I trust you can figure out why.

The first craft lesson writers often get is to Show and not Tell. In its simplest form, a Tell would be: Katie has long brown hair and always wears a gold chain around her neck. A Show would be: Katie felt the pull at the back of her skull as her hair again tangled in the gold chain. Over the course of her teen life, she’d pulled enough brown hair from its clasp to stuff a small pillow.

Basically, a Show will use action combined with sensory information to communicate. More important to remember, though, is that Show is the mechanism that allows a reader to experience what the character feels. Because readers are aligned with the POV (point of view) character, they live the story as the character lives it and discover it as the character discovers it. It is crucial for writers to vigilantly look for places where they can sharpen the Show in their stories.

I read a few reader reviews (I believe on Good Reads) of Farland’s In the Company of Angels and was startled when I came across reader comments suggesting they “could really feel the cold” as they read. I had the opposite experience. I kept forgetting it was cold. I noticed that Farland would tell me that it was cold, then write action, and then maybe several paragraphs later, tell me again it was cold. Farland was wonderful at describing the terrain and even the weather, but, for some reason, he tended to let down on mixing Show in with the action.

When I decided to use Farland’s book to discuss the problem of Show v. Tell on the Molecular Level, I opened the book randomly in search of a suitable paragraph and got lucky. The first paragraph I read was imperfectly perfect for my purposes. It reads:

Baline walked carefully in her useless shoes, but as she crossed Rocky Ridge, the jagged stones tore through her shoes, slicing the old coat sleeve that bound it together, so that time and again Baline had to stop, kneel over, and try to re-tie the mass of rags in some fashion. Her feet were numb from the cold, and her fingertips grew numb from trying to re-tie the rags, and once, when she bent over, she spotted blood on the ground beside her and realized that her foot was bleeding. (369)

I recall coming to this paragraph during my initial read-through and thinking that it was one of the most descriptive paragraphs Farland had written about what a character experienced. And yet, I also remember thinking that, even so, I still wasn’t really feeling the cold. Why? Because on balance, there is more Tell here than Show. Notice that Farland did not write the cold into Baline’s experience. Instead, he wrote her experience, and then justified that experience by telling us she was cold; or rather, that her feet and fingertips were numb.

Again, he wrote her experience:

Baline walked carefully in her useless shoes, but as she crossed Rocky Ridge, the jagged stones tore through her shoes, slicing the old coat sleeve that bound it together, so that time and again Baline had to stop, kneel over, and try to re-tie the mass of rags in some fashion.

And then Farland explains her experience by telling us she felt numbed by the cold:

Her feet were numb from the cold, and her fingertips grew numb from trying to re-tie the rags, and once, when she bent over, she spotted blood on the ground beside her and realized that her foot was bleeding.

Students of the craft of writing need to be on high alert to the way they structure their sentences and how they lay those sentences one atop the other, making sure they achieve maximum effect. What Farland has here is a paragraph that layers one Tell with another. Because Farland doesn’t mix needed sensory information into the action, his result is a reader who is distanced from what Baline is feeling as she walks. It’s like he gives us our needed information in two doses: Dose 1) He tells us what Baline does, and Dose 2) He tells us why. Remember, the use of description is not inherently the same as Show Mode.

Let me be more specific. Notice that the reader is given no sense of numb feet while Baline is walking on them, nor of frozen fingertips as she is re-tying. In fact, he provides imagery that leans the readers’ understanding in the opposite direction, away from Baline feeling numb, by mentioning “the jagged stones” tearing through her shoes. Most readers will feel those stones against her feet, but, based on the second half of the paragraph, the character would not have felt them at all.

I’ll say it again: A reader experiences the story through the POV character. Therefore, the author must provide those sensory details in the action of the story. That is what constitutes Show. As Baline walked in her useless shoes, the reader should’ve been given a mental picture of her that led to the understanding that her feet were numb. If that image had been provided, the reader would know her feet were numb without being told. Likewise, as Baline bent to re-tie the rags, the reader should see her fingers fumbling dumbly and pick up on her frustration that her hands will not do as she commands. We shouldn’t need to be told her fingers are numb. If this had been done, there would have been no need of the authorial explanation that is the latter half of the paragraph.

Allow me to point out one more missed opportunity in this paragraph where Farland could have increased sympathy for the POV character and elevated the tension over her plight if he’d used Show v Tell. Farland ends the paragraph thusly:

and once, when she bent over, she spotted blood on the ground beside her and realized that her foot was bleeding.

Certainly blood in the snow is a strong visual. It carries American cultural baggage back to Valley Forge and should evoke a wealth of emotion for readers. But here? It’s boring. Its past tense. It happened “once,” like it was no big deal. Maybe the strength of the visual does pull in some emotional appeal, but certainly not as much as it could have had Farland turned the image into an actual moment, an event, a scene that the reader experiences with Baline. What if he’d made this image the focal point of the paragraph instead of a last thought? What if he showed Baline stopping atop jagged rocks she couldn’t feel and showed her fumbling fingers working dumbly against the knots, the wind pummeling her? What if, as she tried to tie, her foot slid a fraction of an inch to the right, but far enough to leave a strange red trail in the snow? Maybe she doesn’t fully understand the stain until someone comes to her rescue and ties the knots. Suddenly readers are so closely aligned with Baline that they experience the moment right along with her. As written, the immediacy and sense of connection between character and reader is absent.

Farland wrote much of In the Company of Angels in this manner, telling readers matter-of-factly what happened and then occasionally throwing in explanations or reminders (sometimes paragraphs removed) that the wind blew or the snow was deep.  And yet, as I said, some online reader reviewers asserted they really felt the cold along with the characters. My observation, however, was that these were the same readers who admitted to having studied the Willie Handcart Company in the past, usually because they had an ancestor in the ill-fated company. I suspect they carried forward that strong sense of cold from their personal study rather than having discovered it in the text itself. I’ll leave it to fellow writers to study the novel and prove or disprove my point.

Maybe this weakness in the novel is a side effect of his inexperience with writing realistic fiction. Certainly Farland is skilled at Show v. Tell. He hasn’t earned the title “wizard of storytelling” by accident. He’s taught many who’ve ended up on the NYT Bestsellers list. And yet here it is. Imperfection in his work. If anything, I hope that provides hope for up and coming writers. And something to think about and watch out for in their own writing. It is true that I don’t read like most people, so I tend to obsess on things the average reader never notices. But, as part of the Irreantum team, I’ve become a Gatekeeper. A really low-level Gatekeeper, but hey. Many Gatekeepers read like I do and are deeply impressed when writers carefully layer their sentences, blending action and sensory detail to craft one paragraph after another of strong Show.

6 Comments

Filed under Discussions for Writers, Getting Published, Name Dropping, Reviews and Critiques

6 responses to “Discussion for Writers: Show v. Tell on the Molecular Level

  1. Makes total sense. I’m going to watch for opps to ratchet up Show next time I revise something.

    • It doesn’t matter who you are, Show is THE place where any writer can take it up a notch. Of course, it can drive you nuts and leave you trying to overwrite every little thing. But that’s for another day. Overwriting? That’s my personal curse.

  2. ray bingham

    I find this criticism, sadly onesided, while it makes a great point of highlighting Farland’s telling, it doesn’t really provide decent “showing” as a counterpoint. IMO, the article would be more effective if at least a few of the sentences had a rewrite of the telling, with examples of showing, as that tends to be the hardest part of show-dont-tell. I find it easy to identify tell, but replacing it, with effective and quick-paced show can be quite challenging. So in a way, this article makes the same mistake that it’s criticizing… it tells us about tell, but doesn’t show us enough show. :)

    (I read this article thanks to a link provided by Nauvoo workshop for writers (link: http://www.nauvoo.com/ubb2/cgi/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic&f=24&t=000273#000002)

    –Ray

  3. Ray, see Lisa’s example re: gold chain. I’m sure out of respect, she’s not about to re-write Farland on her blog.
    Besides, it’s good exercise to try it yourself. =P

    Lisa, I’m late to the party re: this post, but I’ve bookmarked it for future references. Good stuff. Thank you.

  4. Fair criticism, Ray. But Dustin nailed why I left those passages un-rewritten. Even when I wear my fiction editor’s cap at Irreantum and Sunstone, I try not to rewrite for the writer. (There are some laughing at that, I’m sure, since early on in my editing efforts, I did rewrite much too often for the writers. Mis-take.) There is no single correct way to flesh out a show moment. Step one, though, is always recognizing the problem. Step two is developing the voice that overcomes the problem. I’m coming back to this post after writing about Writing the Sacred, but I’ll keep it in mind to write more on How To Show. Or at least on ways that work for me or that I like to read.

  5. Ahaa, its pleasant conversation concerning this paragraph here at this blog, I have read all that, so now me also commenting here.

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