The perils of being a show-don’t-tell writer

This week at 20 Books to 50K I had the opportunity to listen to David Weber talk about why he does his (in)famous info dumps. Basically, he said he did it to avoid the dreaded, “As you know, Bob” conversations that would otherwise be needed. IOW, he’s using the info dumps in order to avoid explaining that a missile traveling faster will reach its target before a slower missile. He’s expecting the reader to hold the specifics of missile A vs missile B in his head for later use. It’s his way of engaging the reader who cares about the specifics by having them know the options that a character will have at some future point.

A perfect example of showing would be having a scene (or several) where we can see what each missile can do. To some of us, that’s gold and David has his own space navy to prove that those people exist. To others, it’s a reason to skip, skip, skip ahead because we don’t really care about the specs, just the results. 

But listening to him talk about why he did things the way he did, made me realize that he is in essence practicing the fine art of showing (by avoiding “As you know, Bob”) and RUE—Resist the Urge to Explain. For him, info dumping is better than explaining stuff to Bob. For me, info dumps are on par with explaining things to Bob. Which is one reason I don’t write the intricate space battles that would require the info dumps or the contrived scenes that show us that missile A is faster than missile B in the hopes that you’ll remember that at some point down the line.

This choice affects the type of story that can be told which is why my space opera is different from those focusing on space battle tactics. Hint: I write about human drives, not hyperdrives. 

As writers, we are constantly told, “Show, don’t tell.” 

And I’ve taken this advice to heart. I think it’s made me a better writer, but it has also led to some very interesting exchanges with readers. To be clear, this is not a gripe at or about the readers. I was fortunate in that they were all very nice about it and it was obvious that their intentions were good.

There are very few instances where telling is better, but they do exist. I still think that showing is the better choice. Even with its attendant perils.

One way to show is to give us a character’s internal or physical beats. Trouble is, that palms sweating and hearts hammering, can have many causes. Context matters and you have to do a very solid job of showing the setting and circumstances for it to come through as excitement and anticipation, versus fear. A young man whose heart is pounding and who is sweating bullets may be doing so because he’s about to get down to one knee and propose marriage. If you’ve shown the setting and given us his internalizations, you don’t need to tell us that “his heart was hammering and his palms were sweating in excited anticipation of proposing to his sweetheart.” You can just tell us that “his heart was hammering and his palms were sweating” and leave the rest for us to figure out. IOW, show, don’t tell. RUE.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. One of the things I’ve noticed is that some readers are used to being told everything. They have been trained to read passively and expect writing that allows them to remain passive recipients of the writer’s “wisdom.” I blame it specifically on omniscient and third-limited viewpoint, where the writing is in author-narrator voice. Those are the only two narrative deliveries where explaining something that your characters know but your readers don’t, makes sense. (If you want to learn more about narrative viewpoint, I have a series of short videos that go into the details.)

Is this a reason to change your writing, and start explaining and telling, instead of showing?

I would argue that it’s not, but make the caveat that you need to look very specifically at the writing itself.  

For example, I had a very nice person tell me that they didn’t understand what I meant by “queue.” They didn’t know I meant hair when I was talking about Darien in Ravages of Honor.

It had been awhile since I had written this, so my first thought was “Oops, maybe I should have provided better context.” So I did a word search in my manuscript. 

Here are the uses of the word as they appear:

1st use:

Dozens of precision strokes loosened a strand of hair from the bundle of his shoulder-length queue.

2nd use:

He held his queue off his neck. Its ridiculous length, required by the peerage, was forever getting in his way. 

3rd use:

The knife’s nanometer edge would make short work of the damned queue. 

4th use:

As the gel gloved his hands, he let the queue settle back on his neck.

A tell-don’t-show writer would write: Dozens of precision strokes loosened a strand of hair from the bundle of his shoulder-length braid of hair worn hanging down behind neck. Why? Because a lot of tell-don’t-show writing is done at arm’s length, or from the author-narrator’s perspective. Here, the author-narrator is explaining something the character knows directly to the reader. 

The thing is that the character would use the proper word, i.e. “queue” and 95%, of my narration is in character-narrator voice. In Darien’s society it’s called a queue. He would never be explaining it to himself. He might explain it to someone else, but then I’d have to write a scenario where he has to do that. Who in his society would need that explanation? No one. No one at all. In fact, at this point in the story it would have been an “As you know, Bob” exchange.

And I will risk you not getting my meaning to avoid explaining stuff to Bob or changing my narrative distance and making use of authorial intrusion. Why? Because it’s a helluva lot harder to keep someone immersed in a story when you push them out at arm’s length. Every time you vary narrative distance or float viewpoint, you risk kicking the reader out of the story. It’s far easier for a reader to skip over one word than to get re-immersed once a change in viewpoint occurs mid-scene. And that’s what an explanation is, i.e. a change in viewpoint, an inconsistency, a hop out of the character-narrator’s head into the author’s, just for one line or one sentence.

To be honest, when I decided to go with queue, it was because I didn’t want to use braid (he doesn’t braid it) or ponytail since that’s a longer version of a queue. I figured in today’s ebook age, people would right click to get the definition if they didn’t know it or could not infer it from context. 

Here is the definition from dictionary.com. Ironically, it’s the very first definition:

See synonyms for: queue / queued / queuing on Thesaurus.com

noun

a braid of hair worn hanging down behind.

a file or line, especially of people waiting their turn.

Computers. a FIFO-organized sequence of items, as data, messages, jobs, or the like, waiting for action.

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