Thursday, July 14, 2011

The showing never stops, nor does the telling

In the endless quest to make sense of the "show, don't tell" dictum--which I would actually love to bury, except that, once under the earth, its bones begin to glow mysteriously, and the earth above them to rumble, until the monster bursts forth, more powerful and threatening and unhelpful than ever--

Start again. Recently, Alan Rinzler made an excellent point about "show, don't tell." Although he doesn't actually use that phrase, which is probably all to the good. The point is, writers have to consider the reader's experience:

Have you ever been to a movie where there’s an annoying voiceover narration that keeps commenting without adding anything to what you’re seeing on the screen?

That’s equivalent to an excessive explanation that an author inserts unnecessarily.

Yeah, that unnecessary voiceover narration. Hello, Blade Runner Not-the-Director's-Cut. The voiceover blatantly tells the audience that the filmmaker does not trust it. Either we are too dumb to figure out what's happening on our own, or someone thought the film itself was too dumb to get the points across. Neither generates good vibes.

Even worse, this kind of explaining shuts down any nuance or variety in interpretation, which is part of the pleasure of viewing or reading art. This is the meaning, the voiceover tells us, nothing else, so stop thinking that other thing you were thinking, you're just wrong. So why are we reading this novel anyway? Why not read a diatribe on The Topic at Hand? Because the diatribe would probably be boring. We're making fiction because we want nuance and ambiguity (which is not, however, the same as obscurity and confusion). We want the reader to participate in an imaginative dialog, not be bludgeoned into submission. That's what I want as a reader, anyway.

I find I do a lot of over-explaining in first drafts, because I myself am trying to figure out what's going on. How does this character feel about his father at this moment? What conflicting emotions are going on inside him? How does he--according to his personality--express or conceal those feelings? And so forth. But after I've finished the draft, presumably I know the answers, and if I don't, I have to find them. So during revisions, I can take the over-explanation out.

Of course, it is exceptionally hard for an author to determine on her own if any aspect of her intention is coming across--or, conversely, if her writing is sufficiently nuanced to allow an interesting range of responses. That's why we all need our good, critical readers.

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