On Writing

On Showing vs. Telling; or, More Cowbell!

Pic of Christopher Walken with famous line: I got a fever and the prescription is More Cowbell!I’m going to say a couple of blasphemous things here. First, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” could use more cowbell. And second, in writing it’s sometimes okay to tell rather than show.

A friend posted this article by Chuck Palahniuk in our writing group a few weeks back, and somehow it got under my skin.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half-year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

He was right, I did hate him. Or rather, I felt a pressure around my temples as I hovered the cursor over the Facebook “anger” emoticon. Really, Chuck (I thought!), no thinking at all? Sounds extreme. My novel is in first person, and my narrator naturally thinks a bit, so maybe I felt somewhat sensitive on this issue.

Then the other day I started a romance novel and got only a quarter of the way through before I began drowning under the sheer volume of the characters’ thinking and obsessing and wondering about their own and each other’s feelings. They’d have a short conversation where bits of dialogue were scattered amongst the POV character’s thoughts and strategies about the conversation. Longer conversations, and apparently important ones, were summarized in a couple of paragraphs with no dialogue.

Will Ferrell in More Cowbell skit
Play that funky cowbell, white boy.

It was as if Will Ferrell had gotten loose inside the writer’s computer.

(And if you’re going to say, “What do you expect from a romance novel?” here’s a knuckle sandwich Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone.)

So clearly, Palahniuk’s advice is still needed. And it’s great advice: use concrete, sensory details as much as possible to show the reader what your characters think and feel. Don’t tell the reader Mike is angry, show the reader how he feels with his elevated pulse and clenching fists (and use even more subtle details than those).

He also has a great warning about those “thesis statements” at the beginning (or end) of paragraphs:

“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits.  Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.

I’d say it doesn’t matter where you put that thesis statement. I once nearly threw a Dan Brown novel across the room when he concluded several sentences describing heavily armed guards with something like, “The message was clear: no one was welcome inside.” The message was already clear, and I felt insulted as a reader that he would waste my time. So, trust your reader, and trust yourself to paint a sensory picture without having to explain it. It’s like a comedian explaining a punch line.

But the problem with writing advice is that people treat it as absolute. “Avoid adverbs” becomes “never use an adverb;” “avoid passive voice” becomes “never use any version of the verb ‘to be’.” I’m sure some people who watched SNL’s “More Cowbell” sketch decided that the cowbell should be banned from rock for all time. And some of Palahniuk’s readers might conclude that characters can only sense things and do things, and never have complex or abstract thoughts.

The truth is, there’s a place for telling in fiction, just as there’s a place for the cowbell in rock; the question is, to what degree. The core of a rock song will always be bass, drums, and loud guitars, just as the core of storytelling will always be the detailed scene. But a witty, abstract comment, like the cowbell, adds the cherry on top of the cake, that thing you didn’t know you needed that makes the whole thing work.

Most Interesting Man in the World saying, "I don't always tell, but when I do, I tell it well."

Of course, any telling you do has to be compelling in some way. There are times when you can’t avoid explaining or summarizing; that’s when the ability to write a great bit of exposition or condense a long chain of events into a few paragraphs become vital tools. So, how to tell well?

First, it helps to know the different types, or paces, of narrative, and be able to mix them like a producer at a mixing board. As a writer, you have to decide where to focus your attention, which parts of the tale deserve fully developed scenes, which parts should be summarized, and how much other “explaining” is needed. So the three broad categories of narrative are scene, narrative summary, and exposition. Let’s take a look at each one.

  • Scene: This is the basic building block of fiction, and it contains all the other tools we think of as necessary for a fully developed story: dialogue, action, description of setting and characters, and interior monologue (but not too much interior monologue, or the scene can become abstract). It’s where we see the characters coming into conflict with each other (or sometimes with an external force). It’s where the drama of the story happens. That means the important events of the story should be told through scenes. To use a film metaphor, these are the medium and closeup shots that show the details of what the characters are doing and saying. It’s also a pace of narration: no matter how fast-paced the scene, you really have to slow down and provide all the details of action, dialogue, and description to make your reader see, feel, and hear what’s happening.
  • Narrative Summary: Some stories can be told just through scenes, but in novels covering longer periods, and especially those that skip between periods, you’ll need some connective tissue to link it all together. This is where narrative summary comes in. Like a scene, it still involves the narrative tools of action, description, and even dialogue, but it covers time much more quickly than a scene can. It can be used like an establishing shot in film, to fix the setting and time and also to indicate what has happened between the preceding scene and the one about to begin. Or it can work like a montage, covering in a few images a period of days or weeks. It can often be found in flashbacks, where you need a quick summary of past events that inform the present action.
  • Exposition: This is all the stuff that needs explaining: a theory a character has, the background of a political situation, some arcana a character knows. And sometimes it’s just an abstract but witty or perceptive comment about the story or what a character has learned through her experience. (Warning: tread carefully here! This type of comment often happens in interior monologue, so be careful how much interior monologue you include.)

These three types of narrative often blend together: a scene will contain bits of flashback in narrative summary; an expository sequence can contain action, especially if it’s covering history. With exposition, it’s a good idea to mete it out in bits, avoiding the dreaded info dump, so it’s often woven directly into scenes in clauses or a sentence or two.

Pic of Petyr Baelish and two prostitutes
Petyr Baelish explains it all for you

But sometimes you can’t avoid a longer passage of exposition, and then you need to be able to write it in an entertaining or compelling way. (The Game of Thrones HBO series had a cheat for this that didn’t quite work: just let Petyr Baelish describe the political situation with a topless prostitute on each arm.)

So what’s the right mix for these three types of writing? My writing mentor said we should aim for 80 to 90 percent scene, and keep the “BS” to 10 or 20 percent. (This was in a creative nonfiction course; in fiction the “BS” should probably be around 10 percent.) But don’t take this as a hard and fast rule—stories can come in many forms, and this probably applies more to popular fiction than to more experimental storytelling.

So far, these guidelines have been pretty abstract. Tomorrow, we’ll dig into examples of how to blend telling with showing in just the right mix: tasteful cowbell, not whatever Will Ferrell is doing in that skit; a single cherry on top of the cake, not a whole bushel. (Part two is here.)

Pic of SNL More Cowbell Skit
Will Ferrell proves it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

4 replies on “On Showing vs. Telling; or, More Cowbell!”

Good points and reminders. As my writing mentor always says, “The only rules are there are no rules.” But he also explains that in order to break a rule you need to first understand it and then make sure that breaking it makes the best sense for the story.

What that man said!

Before I let one of brain children out into the light of day, I do a search on every ‘filter’ word I can think of. (“Filter’ because they put a separation between the reader and the experience of the character.) In my most recent book, I used a variant of the verb ‘look’ 362 times in 91,000 words. He looked at her. She looked at the wall. Someone else looked towards the gate. Rewriting to get into the characters head and describe what they saw worked better 90% of the time.

Exactly! Ninety percent of the time they can be removed, but that ten percent is still useful.

Also, in the second part, which I’m about to post, I point out how those filter words can help anchor the reader in the POV character’s consciousness. If you cut out all of them, the reader loses one clue to POV. Some novels I’ve read recently had the problem of the POV floating a bit. But it only takes a couple to provide the hint, not a whole boatload.

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