My Brain Fart on Telling

I thought I’d written my post on telling. That is, I have, indeed, written my post on telling: this is it. (And here’s a related one.) But I had this little brain fart the other day—I learn so much from you guys!—and thought it might be worth sharing.

I love movies.* I know you may be raising your eyebrows, since I have often compared movies unfavorably to books. “A novel is not a movie,” I have said. But that’s true. Novels and movies are different storytelling art forms with different ways altogether to, well, tell the story. There are different constraints, the most obvious being one is a visual medium while the other is entirely word-based.

Do you think in pictures or in words? We talked about this awhile back. Most people, it seems, think in pictures. And this manifests itself in a lot of telling (as opposed to showing). Seriously, violation of the dictum to Show, don’t tell ranks in the top three of Things I Wish You Wouldn’t Do. (Oh, don’t ask me about the other two. I’m still working on that post.)

Telling is when you use narrative to tell the reader what she should think, rather than showing her with dialogue, body language, and so on—and letting her think for herself. When you start interpreting what’s happening, you’ve begun telling.

So here’s the movie analogy. It’s like you’re sitting beside me in the dark, explaining the movie as I watch it: “And then, see, Josephine shakes her head because she doesn’t believe him.” Shhhh!

You can write that she’s shaking her head; that’s body language. It’s when you start with the “she didn’t believe him” that you slip into telling. Instead, use dialogue:

“Oh, Bobby. Bobby.” Josephine shook her head. “But, you see, I don’t believe you.”

A novel is not a movie. And I don’t want you to interpret what’s happening. I can do it myself. :)

* Off the top of my head: Amelie. Groundhog Day. Love, Actually. Local Hero. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Bull Durham. Big Fish. In the Loop. Snatch. I have watched these films repeatedly. I will watch them again.

 

Tweet: Telling is when you use narrative to tell the reader what she should think.
Tweet: Show, don’t tell ranks in the top three of Things I Wish You Wouldn’t Do.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Writing Craft | Tagged as: , , | Bookmark the permalink | Leave a trackback: Trackback URL

4 Comments

  1. It’s curious to me that you frequently re-watch movies, but rarely reread books. I’m a movie lover too (within some picky parameters), but it’s the rare one I watch more than once but I love to reread books.

    Regarding showing vs. telling I completely agree and thank you for the example.

  2. Rob says:

    I thought most Westerners thought in words, not pictures. I hear a lot of talk in mindfulness/meditation circles about the “inner dialogue”, but little about an “inner movie”. In my case, my brain jabbers away at me in words until it slows down into a dreamy alpha state of consciousness or is focused on something I’m writing/doing that is primarily visual.

    I rarely read books a second time. I tried rereading a couple of my favourites from when I was in college, but didn’t like them the second time. Dharma Bums was one (thought it was stupid the second time). Frannie and Zooey was another (sounded kind of whiny the second time). I did like One Hundred Years of Solitude the second time, but wasn’t blown away by it like I was the first time.

  3. […] speaking, it’s all telling (it’s not storyshowing, you know),” although no, actually, not all narrative is telling … Then there was the in-house editor whose vituperative email made both me and the author […]

  4. […] it seems to be such a difficult concept for writers who are just learning the craft. Bottom line: allow your readers to do the thinking. Let us draw our cues from things your characters say and do. Once this concept “clicks” for […]

2 Trackbacks

  1. By You Win Some, You Lose Some on 13 March, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    […] speaking, it’s all telling (it’s not storyshowing, you know),” although no, actually, not all narrative is telling … Then there was the in-house editor whose vituperative email made both me and the author […]

  2. By It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green on 27 March, 2014 at 11:31 am

    […] it seems to be such a difficult concept for writers who are just learning the craft. Bottom line: allow your readers to do the thinking. Let us draw our cues from things your characters say and do. Once this concept “clicks” for […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*