it's a great life, if you don't weaken (matociquala) wrote,
it's a great life, if you don't weaken
matociquala

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Koans for writers: "Show, don't tell."

With regard to my post on writing koans, and show-don't-tell in particular, rezendi said "I think it's possible to get too pathological about this one." Which gives me the ideal opportunity to yammer on a little about what I mean by "unpacking." And how this particular koan unpacked for me--and continues to. greygirlbeast said in her blog today that writers are like wine; they get better with age.

This unpacking thing may in part be why.

"Show, don't tell," is probably about the first piece of advice that every beginning writer gets. And it's generally said to mean "dramatize, don't summarize." And okay, that's a starting point. But it's a pretty weak one--especially taken to extremes. Summarization is a critical skill in a fiction writer's toolkit; it's the "sequence" in scene-and-sequence (a mechanistic treatment of writing narrative that I hate, loathe, detest, despise, and abhor in general, but enough of that elsewhere--there's nuggets of merit in it, but I think they're best found by taking scene-and-sequence as descriptive rather than prescriptive.). Summarization is exposition, it's denouement, it's introduction, it's part of worldbuilding--

And it also keeps one from writing long, boring scenes when, essentially, they can be summed up thusly: "After we rescued Peter from the witch-king, we went to IHoP for a pancake snack."

So, okay. That's the first level of unpacking. Unfortunately, some of the damage done by that level can be seen, live and in person, in the manuscript for All the Windwracked Stars I posted over at my Fictons journal last year. (elizabethbear)

But after you've been writing for a while, you start to figure this stuff out. You get out of the habit of summarizing a story and into the habit of dramatizing it, and you discover that there are places where a well-placed summary (as small as a phrase, as long as a chapter) comes in damned handy.

But then you also discover that that's not what "Show, don't tell" really means.

What it really means is that incluing is more effective than exposition. That, in other words, there are ways to make the actual narrative function as worldbuilding and backstory. That you can reveal a great deal of what you need the reader to know by showing it rather than explaining it. That you don't need to tell the reader that Bruno was a prizefighter, and he left the ring after he killed a man. The reader is smart. The reader, in fact, is nigh-on to a mindreader, and subtext is powerful.

It's an epiphany. It leaves you dizzy. It makes your hands shake. And you write and write and write and lean into this revelation like it was a strong wind.

And six months later, you start to realize that there are circumstances where it's inefficient. Where subtlety and sidelong glances lose most of your readers. Where you fail to close the gates that keep them following the sheepdog to the pasture of your choosing. That your readers, in short, are confused, because you have become coy. And you realize that that wasn't what "Show, don't tell" meant at all.

What it means was that you actually can narrate or exposit anything, as long as you do it engagingly. Anything, that is, except one thing. Character development and motivation; these are things that have to be demonstrated, grounded. The reader has to be made to feel them. They have to be in the reader's gut; the reader has to be in the character, he has to comprehend the character. You discover the magic of the thing tanaise called "inpositioning," of making the character's motivations explicit in his actions. Of showing the disconnect between what he does, and what he says (the single best teaching example of this I can think of is a scene in Roger Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon between Benedict and Corwin which includes what I consider to be one of the best paragraphs of oblique characterization in fantasy: "I glanced away and so did Ganelon. When I looked back, his face had returned to normal, and he had lowered his arm." It's a paragraph, two sentences, twenty-three words, that completely define two characters for me. Taken out of context, not so much, but in the place where the two men have been shown, and their relationships demonstrated, it's breathtaking.) and making the reader understand the three-dimensionality of the character by showing him in parallax view. If he jumps when you close one eye, you can see him against the background of stars.

Except that's wrong. That's not what "Show, don't tell" means. Because sometimes a simple declarative sentence can be devastating. Sometimes you can tell the reader, flat out, mano a mano as it were-- "She was tired."

And you can break the reader's heart with three words.


So I've had a new epiphany. And now I think, what it means is that the reader believes what he sees; he believes in the world that is demonstrated to him, that he is grounded in, that he comprehends. He understands it from the perspectives the writer shows him, those angles--and the unique angle he brings on his own, his "50%." And those things mesh together to make the story he percieves, and enjoys, or dislikes.

Except I'm pretty sure that I'm also wrong about that.

They keep unpacking and unpacking and unpacking. Otherwise they would be rules, not koans.

"Some say he is a holy man; others, that he is a shithead."
Tags: the writing koans
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