“Show, don’t tell.”
If you’re a writer or have ever taken a writing class, you’ve heard this advice, probably many times over. Readers want drama, not dry explanations. Give them something they can visualize! Don’t say “Joe became angry.” Say “Joe slammed his fist down on the table. His face turned an alarming shade of red, his lip trembled, and the veins of his forehead visibly throbbed.”
Is it generally good advice? Yes.
Is it universally good advice? Of course not.
A writer has to weigh many priorities while crafting scenes, and sometimes there are higher priorities than “paint a complete picture for the reader.” The most obvious of these is brevity. You can Google “show not tell” and find hundreds of before-and-after examples like the one I used above. In 98% of those cases, while the “showing” version is undoubtedly superior taken in a vacuum, it is also longer. Often much longer. And there will be times in your story when you need a short bit of telling more than three long sentences of showing.
“Jane’s face brightened when Tom entered the room.” Yes, we could describe Jane’s facial expressions and body language in loving detail in place of the word “brightened.” We could describe Tom’s gait, his speed, and whether the door swung in or out. We could show with fifty words what this sentence tells us efficiently with eight, but at what cost to pacing? Without knowing the context, I would not suggest that this sentence needs to be fixed – or at least not suggest how it should be fixed.
Another case where telling can be superior to showing is when a writer wants the reader to understand a complex thought process. If Jane is smiling at Tom but inside she’s furious, and Tom has no idea, this is effectively impossible to show – because anything the reader can “see,” so could Tom. One of the advantages of written stories over (say) movies is that an author can give you a direct look inside a character’s head (without one of those goofy voice-overs, at least). Often what’s most interesting, most meaningful about a scene is how a character’s thoughts and emotions are juxtaposed with the surrounding action. And if I may stray further into the realm of the subjective for a moment, I find it annoying when an author relies on hiding the motives of a POV character in order to create drama or suspense. (This doesn’t apply to non POV characters, of course, or any character in 3rd-person omniscient storytelling.)
I find this topic on my mind quite often as I write my current series of books, and specifically as I consider a specific subset of telling called filtering. I was introduced to the concept of filtering by friend and published author Edward Aubry, and soon realized it was a sin I was committing on every page of my books. Simply put, a filter word is one that comes between the reader and the direct observations of a POV character.
Here’s the simplest example I can think of. Imagine a chapter told from the POV of the character Dave. He hears the doorbell ring. I could write that as ““Dave heard the doorbell ring,” but it’s better to cut out the middle man. “The doorbell rang.” The reader doesn’t need to be told that Dave heard it; we’re in Dave’s head. There’s no one else it could be.
Likewise: “Dave decided to open the door.” Unless the decision making process itself is important to the scene, it’s better to write “Dave opened the door.” Other common filter words: realized, wondered, seemed, looked, noticed. There are plenty of them, and it’s best to get rid of them when they’re not needed. After Ed pointed out this pitfall to me, I excised literally hundreds of examples of it from my working draft of The Ventifact Colossus.) It sounds straightforward, right?
Well, no. Not always.
In my current series, I’m writing an ensemble cast of protagonists that spend most of their time in a group. Think Fellowship of the Ring. But unlike Tolkien, I’m also writing each chapter in the strict POV of a single character in that group. (That means I never write about something that the POV character cannot directly experience or infer.) One of my biggest challenges is maintaining strong POVs despite the large group, particularly in scenes when the characters are having group discussions. If I’m writing in Aravia’s POV while all seven characters sit around a campfire chatting, many lines of dialogue can pass without Aravia’s POV being asserted. Yes, I could interject a reaction between every line of dialogue, but that, it turns out, is pretty awful to read. But the alternative is that readers can slowly drift away from the POV. Just because it’s Aravia’s chapter doesn’t mean a half-page can go by without her saying something or reacting to someone else. Sometimes it’s important that she witnesses interactions between multiple other characters…and that’s where I end up wrestling with filter words.
For example, imagine that the seven heroes are hiding out in a barn, discussing a plan. Aravia is the POV character, but at the moment she’s watching as Ernie and Morningstar argue. Several lines go by of just those two talking:
Aravia sat and stroked her cat, content for the moment to let others argue their course of action.
Morningstar stood and glowered. “We have to try it.”
“No,” said Ernie. “We don’t. The prisoner will be injured . Probably killed.”
“It doesn’t matter if he gets hurt!” Morningstar was forgetting to keep her voice down. “If we fail at this, a hundred people will die.”
Ernie was defiant. “You don’t know that.”
Morningstar crossed her arms. “If you have a better idea, tell us. We have five minutes before it becomes moot. The moon is almost down.”
Ernie stammered something unintelligible. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again.
“That’s right,” said Morningstar. “I agree it’s a dangerous plan, but it’s our only plan.”
Anyone with a brain could see this was a terrible idea; there were too many variables, too many unknowns.
Now freeze. This is an Aravia chapter, so that last observation is hers. It has to be hers. But the reader has just spent 15-20 seconds watching (through Aravia’s eyes) two other characters bickering. I didn’t want to interrupt that argument with Aravia’s internal play-by-play—that would have diffused the tension of the scene—but by the time I get to that final line, the POV is no longer in clear focus. The line as written is confusing. Who’s thinking that again? Ernie?
Instead I’d be inclined to write: “Aravia could see clearly this was a terrible idea…” In this case the filtering serves the additional purpose of re-grounding the reader in Aravia’s POV.
Is my inclination correct? My writer friends could perhaps find more elegant solutions. I invite any readers to comment; I’m always in the market for writing advice!
UPDATING TO ADD: Kevin Kulp has indeed suggested a non-filtering solution:
“Aravia frowned. Anyone with a brain could see…” Solves the regrounding with no filtering!