Monday, 6 July 2015

Show not Tell... by Cecilia Busby

When I wrote my first children's book I hadn't done any kind of MA in Creative Writing. I hadn't got a degree in English, I didn't do English 'A' level. I didn't even read any 'How to...' books before I started - the extent of my research was to get a copy of the Children's Writers' and Artists' Handbook. After a fairly long search for an agent and then publisher, it was finally accepted for publication, and I found myself writing more books - but still without any kind of training in the dos and don'ts.

The result is that I have had to learn a lot of writing terms and tricks on the job. When I first joined the Scattered Authors, I can remember having to ask people what 'omniscient narrator' meant and what the difference was between 'third person' and 'close third person', and what a POV (point of view) was. In my first book, I switched perspectives between characters without a thought - one minute we were seeing the scene from the point of view of the main boy, and then in the next paragraph we'd hear what another character thought about it all. I'm still not really sure if that made my narrative omniscient or not. I certainly didn't do anything like saying 'dear reader, as you can see they are all very scared at this point'! But maybe that's just 'old fashioned omninscient narrator' and what I was doing was a less overt form. (You see? I still don't really know!)

Gradually I became aware that there were lots of quasi-rules about what constituted 'good' writing, and one of them was precisely not to do this sort of random switching of perspective. I still like to 'head hop' to an extent - I'd feel cramped in only one person's perspective for a whole book - but I do now try to make sure that if we're in one character's POV, I don't switch out of it till there's a change of scene break. So that's one thing I've learned on the job.

Another rule that came to my attention after a while was that over-use of adjectives and adverbs was rather looked down on. I got slightly cross at this, as I like adjectives and adverbs (you may have noticed). In my science-geek kind of way, I went hunting for them in my favourite authors' books.

Diana Wynne Jones (foremost culprit for overuse of the said words) has a rate of about 8% of adjectives and 2.5% of adverbs (my own rates at the time were 6% and 1.5% respectively). So I wasn't doing too badly, despite my fondness for them. Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus books had 6.5% adjectives and 1% adverbs. There clearly is a place for adjective- and adverb-rich description in good children's writing. But it's noteworthy that  Patrick Ness - a much more award-winning example of a contemporary 'good' writer - uses both types of word much more sparingly. He'll often, for example, use nouns instead: 'the emptiness and stillness of it' rather than 'it was empty and still'. (Neil Gaiman uses this trick too: 'He closed his hands around the coldness of the brooch'.) It can be very effective to find alternatives, and I do now find myself checking more self-consciously for over-use of adverbs or adjectives, making sure they are needed, and sometimes pruning them back. I think it's improved my writing, so I guess that counts as another thing I've learned on the job.

But... there's one rule that evades me, and it's the oft-quoted 'show not tell'. I think I know what it means, and I sort of agree with the more egregious examples that are usually put forward to illustrate it. Clearly saying, 'She was very worried about the spot on her nose' is less effective than saying, 'She stood in front of the mirror and peered at the spot on her nose. It was like a beacon in the middle of her face.' But when it comes to less obvious examples, I find myself flailing. Is it 'telling not showing' to say that your character 'frowned in bemusement'? And if you were gong to 'show' this bemusement, how would you do it? Isn't it sometimes a useful short-cut for both yourself and your reader to do a bit of telling?

The first time I camne across the idea of' show not tell' was in a review of Diana Wynne Jones's Enchanted Glass by Marcus Sedgwick. It was, he noted, 'item number one on day one of Creative Writing 101' and yet Jones happily (and to great effect) ignored it, saying such things as 'Aiden discovered that he really, really liked Andrew'. At the time, I was reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and the idea that good authors 'show not tell' struck me as highly amusing. Tolstoy spends his whole time teling us exactly what his characters feel, think and experience. (By coincidence, I'm ploughing through War and Peace at the moment and opening a random page gives me 'Princess Mary could not understand the boldness of her brother's criticism' as well as, a paragraph on, 'she felt the sensation of fear and respect which the old man inspired in all around him'. See what I mean?)

Since then I've come across the axiom in numerous books, blogs and bits of advice for writers, and in many cases it makes perfect sense as a way to improve what might otherwise be rather clunky or heavy-handed writing. Certainly it's the case that Tolstoy, great as he is, is not necessarily a good model for contemporary 21st century fiction! But I still feel a bit at sea with the whole 'show not tell' thing. I'm not sure when I'm doing it, and I'm not always convinced it needs remedial action even if I do notice it.

I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to become a published author, and even luckier that I've managed to carry on writing. I really enjoy what I do, and after all, all professions involve some learning on the job. But there are times when I wish I had the funds and time to go and do an MA in Creative Writing - now that I know how much I don't know - and, among other things, nail once and for all that pesky 'show not tell' rule...

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for children aged 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)


Sue Purkiss said...

I think it's as the captain said in 'Pirates of the Caribbean', when Keira Knightley was outraged because he was breaking the rules of the Pirate Code - 'Ah, well you see - them's not exactly rules; they're more what you might call guidelines!' (Or something to that effect...)

Emma Barnes said...

I love what Sue said!

there were lots of quasi-rules about what constituted 'good' writing, and one of them was precisely not to do this sort of random switching of perspective

Personally, I feel sad that there's this taboo about OPOV - a lot of my favourite books use OPOV, and I cannot see what's wrong with it. What's good enough for Jane Austen...not to mention most classic children's writers...should be good enough for us? Or is the truth more that it's a challenging way to write, and therefore a lot of us are not good enough for it?

On "show not tell" though, I do agree. Often when I don't like a writing style there's a lot of "telling" going on. However, I think people get a bit fetishistic about it, and I also think when you're writing for children in particular there may be very good reasons for it: it can be a lot more economical, and also a younger audience may require it more, depending on context. I also suspect a lot of writers like using First Person because they can do a lot of "telling" - but somehow it's OK if the character is doing it, not a narrator.

Richard said...

Far be it from me to tell a published author what to do, but...

Terry Pratchett wrote in OPOV a lot. Generally he settled down into third-person eventually, but not always. So long as I know who's head I'm in and I don't get dizzy, I'm fine. I won't name the famous author who took half a page to tell me who's eyes I was looking through. Ach.

Regarding showing and not telling, you probably want to check two things. Is it better one way or the other; showing increases involvement but slows pace. Or are you being redundant?

"I don't understand," she said, frowning in bemusement.

As a cheaper alternative to an MA, you might try the Elements of Fiction series of books. Each one nails down one aspect of writing in enough detail to do it justice. There's overlap all over the place of course, but that's rather useful too. I think they're all excellent except Dialog.

Nick Green said...

'Show don't tell' is much misunderstood. Huge tracts of undisputed classics are 'told' not shown. You can't show every damn thing, that's ridiculous.

What it means is, be specific not vague. Let the reader feel/visualise, rather than reach for abstracts. You can say, by all means, 'He was terrified.' So long as the scene around it makes it clear why that should be the case. (Or even if it doesn't, sometimes).

It's both simpler and more complex than it looks, I think. But the rule needs much, much qualification.

Nick Green said...

p.s. as does the 'cut adverbs/adjectives' rule.

'The coldness of the brooch' is cheating. That's an adjective in disguise. Just write the bloody adjective, Neil, you'll feel better.

Ann Turnbull said...

I was like you, Cecilia - never did any of those things before my first book was published, except the English Lit A Level that I did at evening class while working as a shorthand-typist (the shorthand-typing course I did at school was probably the most practical training a writer could have!) And how-to books on writing had not taken off then, except for the excellent How to Write in the Teach Yourself series. I've often wished I'd been to university but it really is a bit late now!

As for 'show not tell' it's not something I think about at all when I'm writing or even re-writing. It must surely have to be a balance, and you probably get it right instinctively.