Monday, 12 November 2007

The Show Must Go On

It has been one of the great unexplained mysteries of writing to me.
Show, don't tell, they say, but they never say why.
Nobody ever says why. Like adverbs and clich├ęs. They're just bad and that's all there is to it (even if loads of great and/or popular authors persist in using them).
So it's with some reluctance and a murmuring heart that I tread on the great unwashed toes of this holiest of writers' maxims. I will retain an open-mind and a willingness to come down on either side of the fence.
(NB I've been working on this draft for two months!)

The first, and most obvious, problem with the 'tell' is that it leaves (or, at least, creates the impression of leaving) a non-omniscient pov.
She stood before the wooden bridge. It was rickety.
How does she know the bridge is rickety?
What does she see or hear or feel that allows her to reach this conclusion?
So a 'tell' is more likely to work in an omniscient pov; a 'tell' is a rough and ready shortcut. (Or, in ricardo's words, the 'tell' is vanilla.)

Now let's think back to the poppet.
We have demonstrated on many occasions and with much ease that the reader searches for a best-match response - a personal response to the words we write and the concepts they create.

We can never know how a reader might react to our words.

If I write 'she smelled of summer', the reader concocts his very own, personal, unique interpretation of that smell.
(See preconceptions.)
Every reader interprets our writing in a different way.
Every reader's experience is different.

So this idea of shepherding a reader along an emotional topography must be flawed then Solvey?
Not a bit of it!
If we work with the human condition, we can be sure to create a shared response - a response that is as close to universal as possible.
If we mention love or hate or anger or despair or ecstasy, we're sure to elicit some form of general response.
(NB I recently read an article on Hitchcock. Apparently, he was quick to point out that he was not a director of movies - he was a director of audiences.)

This is where I got a bit stuck until I found an article on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP):
- - -
All of our thoughts, emotions, memories and imaginings are made from pictures, sounds and sensations. The differences between our common experiences come from the myriad sequences and placings we can make with sounds and pictures and sensations and in the choice of subject matter that attracts our attention.
- - -

We use the word resonance rather a lot.
When I read of a tragic love affair, I want it to create within in me the emotional journey of that tragic love affair. The author should allow me to find these emotions within myself. This is my journey - me, me, me - I, I, I - I have been in love and I have known tragedy; the author should allow me to find my own resonance.

Here, we can see how a 'show' taps into our emotions at a deeper level.
Whereas the 'tell' goes for the end product, the 'show' constructs responses from carefully selected and arranged sensory inputs. (In her book The Emotional Hostage, Leslie Cameron-Bandler details her model of the structure of emotions, listing seven changeable parts to any emotion [more on this once I've read the book].)
In this way, not only are an impressive and vast array of subtle emotional variations and hybrids available to us, we are also working deep inside the reader, which is where we are going to move them.

Now this is interesting:
In this extract from an article on Language and Emotion, we can imagine the origins of our interpretations:
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Language, Emotion and Memory. Both in the psychoanalytic literature (writings of Freud and his followers) and in sociolinguistics there is mention of the necessity or efficacity of reaching the language of earliest memory (for the Freudians) or the `basilect' (the individual's basic, unvarnished, unmonitored language/dialect). For the psychoanalysts, the point is to uncover the traumatic memory, which may be associated with (`coded' in) the patient's first language, in cases where a language other than the one currently dominant was used in childhood.
For the Labovians, asking a subject to recount a moment when they thought they were close to death tends to evoke the emotions associated with that memory, which shuts down the monitoring of their own speech so that the basic, unalloyed, unmonitored (casual, colloquial etc.) version of their idiolect emerges for observation.
[Source here.]
- - -

I have many more thoughts on this topic.
Moreover, by revisiting the idea of 'showing', I will be able to distil this rather unsteady post into an essence.
For now, my interim conclusion is that the 'show' remains in pov, allows for the invocation of specific and subtle responses, and flowers deep inside the reader; the 'tell' is emotionally less engaging, but gets to the point quickly.

Any thoughts or observations are welcome!


esruel said...

One simple way to show the writer how he must write for his audience, is to point out that his novel will have no pictures, no illustrations. Therefore, he must illustrate for his readers, using words to draw these pictures instead.
I have been lucky with some of my rejections, in that some agents took the trouble to tell me where they felt I was going wrong, and actually said 'show' don't 'tell'. One even said that it was the difference between an essay and a story. It can be seen, therefore, that agents are looking for writers who can demonstrate, or show, so your post is mightily important, solvey, simply from the point of view of acceptance.
Don't just write that 'Joe could remember the pain of being shot', but describe/illustrate how 'Joe heard the crack of the gun, and felt the horrendous pain as the bullet smashed into his ribcage, and how he fell to his knees into the mud and the snow, the rasp of his lungs as he gasped for breath, and the silence of the freezing night closing in around him as he waited for the sound of the second shot, the one that would finish him off...'

solv said...

All good stuff Esy!
The two points you raise are:
1) A show paints a picture.
2) Agents like shows.
I'll skip the second point, not because it isn't valid (because it is very valid), but because I'm interested in the end product: I'm looking to engage a reader.
So presumably we can use the show to, not only paint a picture, but to paint sounds and smells too; and this is important because we can use these stimulae to create emotional responses?
What interests me is, like all techniques, an author can show well, or he can show not so well.
If we can understand what is happening within the show, we should be able to harness its power.
I like Leslie's idea that emotions are made from recipes. Imagine the subtle permutations of, say, a chile con carne. We could go heavy on the tomatoes, we could add varying amounts of cloves of garlic, we could chop the peppers in different ways.
It looks to me as though the show provides us with this kind of control over emotional response.