Many writers get confused over the difference between showing and telling a story. And before they understand the difference, will argue that one thing is the other, especially when it comes to their own writing.
Writers tell stories, the argument goes, so how can a writer do anything but 'tell' his or her own story. By definition surely, any kind of 'showing' is 'telling' in disguise.
Don't you just love semantics? You can argue pretty much anything with words - when you know how to use them.
The fundamental point is that writers don't actually tell stories - or shouldn't. The characters tell the stories. The writer is merely a conduit for the characters.
It wasn't always this way - and I think this is where the confusion lies.
At school we're taught that people like Homer, Dickins and O Henry are great storytellers, which they are, but that doesn't mean they knew all the secrets to writing great fiction.
Fiction works best when there is no author present in the text.
One of the reasons why so many people still read Sherlock Holmes stories around a hundred years after they were written is because the stories are told, not by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - even though on a literal level we know he wrote them, but by Watson, the great detective's assistant.
Using a character in your own fiction to tell the story is one of the great literary techniques hiding in plain sight to wannabe writers.
Similarly, The Great Gatsby is not told by Fitzgerald, but by Nick, the long suffering friend of the eponymous hero.
New writers often find it difficult to separate themselves from their own stories. They will write pages and pages of exposition from the omnipresent authorial perspective. And no matter how good the writing may be, readers will for the most part be unimpressed - and not know why...
It's about identification.
Readers generally do not want to identify with writers - only other writers do that.
No, readers want to identify with characters. They want to be those characters and vicariously experience the character's high and lows while journeying through a story.
Without compelling character identification, your stories are dead in the water.
In many ways show don't tell is about technique - but it's also a crucial mindset that the fiction writer needs to acquire - and often does with an epiphany or straightforward light-bulb moment.
Funny thing is, once you 'get' it, you'll wonder why you never wrote that way before - and will mostly likely be embarrased by your previous efforts.
Then you'll know how all the bestselling authors of our modern (and more enlightened) age pull off the feat of showing and not telling stories, to such great effect.
For instance, despite everything we are taught or led to believe, Shakespeare is not 'in' any of his plays. He may well have acted as one of the characters on stage but nowhere are his voice or opinions or issues overtly stated as a character in the plays.
In fact one of the reasons why the real Shakespeare is such an illusive identity is that his characters express equally compelling arguments for diametrically opposed points of view - as should all great authors.
Transparent objectivity, deliberately constructed empathy and a reader's willing suspension of disbelief are crucial elements to understanding why fiction works at all.
Because as soon as a reader, or viewer or audience member becomes aware that the author or screenwriter or playwright is speaking to them through the book, film or performance, then the writer has failed - majorly - in his or her function as a storyteller.
And if the above paragraph confuses you - or you don't see the relevance of the argument - then my guess is that you're still struggling with 'show don't tell.'
Being a writer is not just about having something to say. It's about learning how to say it effectively.
I was at an interview yesterday where three authors were asked about writing and what advice they'd give to new writers.
They were unanimous on three points.
1. Write every day.
2. Writing something bad is better than writing nothing.
And most importantly,
3. Keep learning as much as you can about writing.
Your apprenticeship as a writer is never over. You can never learn too much nor hear good advice too often.
It's when you think you know it all - or don't think you need to listen to what other good and great writers advise - then you stop being the best writer you can be.
And your reader will somehow, mysteriously, know that.
(c) Rob Parnell
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