I am certainly not the only book/writer’s blog that will talk about writing advice nor am I the last. Each writer has their own ideas and solutions for common writing problems (and pitfalls) and, as a writer, I am privy to my own host of solutions, ideas, and “tricks” for writing.
In my forays into the written world, I have learned a great deal. From grammar classes to writer’s workshops, I have picked up pieces of information from dozens of talented writers and poets in a variety of writing situations. But not all advice is good advice, and not all advice is helpful. One criticism I often hear is, “Show, don’t tell.”
This is usually meant as a hint to the author in attempts to be less explicit. To not state things/actions/feelings outright and instead to use drama and finesse to lead the reader to make their own conclusions about those things/actions/feelings.
Yet, what often ends up happening is an excess of hyper-detailing. In trying to fix one issue, another one has been created. Of course, there is an inherent value in leaving some things unsaid. A book is a mental movie, one where the reader can create scenes in their head (or at least, that’s how I do it,) and can infer the emotions, positions, and reactions of the characters involved. The explicit statement of certain facts denies the reader that opportunity.
However, there comes a point where something needs to be said. Hyper-detailing is a close cousin to irrelevant detailing, where unnecessary information is loaded into a scene. Whether this is done in attempts to be “eloquent” or “beautifully narrative,” it can lead the reader down a stream of unnecessary descriptors that do not lend anything to the story.
How does a writer hyper-detail? And in what ways is it used?
We love to imagine what the characters from our favorite stories look like. Movie adaptations can quickly squash these mental pictures (for better or for worse) and can override any idea that the reader may have formed on their own with movie-cover books featuring the faces of Hollywood actors in the roles of the noteworthy characters.
Unnecessary (and often lengthy) character descriptions can limit the reader’s imagination in this regard. Especially, as previously stated, when it doesn’t lend anything to the story at hand. Paragraph descriptions about a character’s eye color are relatively unnecessary unless your novel deals with how different eye colors give people different super-powers (or what have you.)
It is a reminder to include the necessary and relevant information when describing your characters.
Her hair was a rich, chestnut brown that fell to her shoulders but she always kept it tied up in a messy bun. She had deep, thoughtful eyes that swam like the ocean and darkened like a storm when she was angry. She only ever wore monochromatic outfits because she didn’t like the hassle of color-coordinating, and every outfit was accompanied by her trademark blue Converse high-tops.
She kept her hair tied up in a messy bun and stuck pencils in it when she was drawing. She liked to dress simply and always wore her trademark blue Converse.
The first lays out so much information for the reader in such a way that the author has completely crafted a person without allowing the reader to have any input. It also contains unnecessary, superfluous details that aren’t highly relevant to the story (in this case.)
The second example gives the reader more gaps to fill in with their imagination. Her hair color isn’t entirely important, so it doesn’t need to be included. Mentioning that she ties it up in a bun and sticks pencils in it gives the reader an idea of the kind of person this character is without stating it outright in a dozen extra words. Giving the reader the opportunity to decide what “dress simply” means is a wonderful freedom.
In my mind, the first example reads a lot like a John Green novel.
Even though the second paragraph seems more like “telling” than “showing,” it works more effectively as a character descriptor. The first contains too much information at the get-go, and dumps it all on the reader in one go. This leads to the second pitfall:
As important as it is for the reader to have all of the necessary information, it isn’t entirely effective to give them all of the information. Those gaps are what allow readers to imagine and to read between the lines. If you spend pages and pages on details that later become irrelevant, what was the point? It leads the reader on in hopes of a satisfying conclusion, but only leaves them wondering why they read about the history of the aquarium near where the protagonist grew up.
Especially in sci-fi and fantasy novels, it can be tempting to lay everything out for the reader all at once so they know exactly what you (the author) know. But it is far more effective to “leave some things to the imagination,” as the old adage goes. Spending paragraph upon paragraph “showing” the reader the world that the character lives in only serves so much purpose.
ACTIONS & EMOTIONS
This is the category that frustrates me the most. In many situations, I much prefer to tell the reader what the character is feeling in one way or another. When “show, don’t tell” comes into effect here (and when it gets pointed out to me at writer’s workshops,) I have to do my best to smile and thank them for their input.
Take these two sentences:
“It’s not going to work,” she said, stomping her foot on the ground and huffing.
“It’s not going to work,” she said angrily.
While some may argue that the first gives more insight into the character’s personality and behavior, I find that it can get overly descriptive. Actions and emotions are intrinsically linked, and it is important to remember that when writing. But dialogue exchanges, especially in scenes where there is a lot of action taking place, can quickly become clouded with an excess of “show, don’t tell” where the actions are placed at a higher importance than the emotions.
I often hear complaints of, “I don’t want to be told that she’s angry, I want to see that she’s angry.” And while I would tend to agree in some situations, scenes can get heavily bogged down with too much “showing” and not enough “telling.”
The feedback they’re trying to give is to describe how the character is feeling on the inside by showing how it manifests on the outside. But this tends to lead into a lot of clichés of action/emotion couples such as: knees wobbling, hearts pounding, blood running cold, heads swimming, etc.
IN THE END
It largely comes down to timing. There are times when you should show and times when you should tell. A skilled writer can identify these situations and actively correct them (or craft them) in their work. And look, I’m still on the team of writers that has difficulty picking and choosing those moments. It’s okay to not be a perfect writer; to strive for perfection is to strive for the unattainable. Strive to be better! Looking back on my written work, I can see an improvement in my writing from nine years ago to now and I can read through years of work and watch my writing improve.
And that’s not saying that I’m the best version of my writer-self that I can be. I’m sure that I’ll look back on pieces that I’ve written this year from some time in the future and I’ll remark at how far I’ve come. Writing is a complex and dramatic art and it takes time to refine it. Talk to other writers, get feedback, ignore feedback! But, above all else, never stop writing.