Saturday, July 2, 2011
Showing Not Telling
Okay-- once again I have seen something that has ticked me off, not in and of itself, but as the final moment of text on top of the pile that sends the whole thing cascading down like a slippery, irritating mountain of old typewriter ribbon, showering down in a vitriolic rain.
I'll admit it-- the review was less than flattering. It was a goodreads.com piece, wherein the author (by her own admission) unloaded on me, making me the personal objectification of all she felt bad writers did wrong. In her opinion, I was guilty of "telling, instead of showing."
Now, I've been someone's personal objectification before--that's not what made my hackles rise. It was the phrase "Showing Not Telling" that got my panties in a twist. She used it wrong.
I went to my peeps (or, at this stage in the game, my tweeps, Goddess love the social media) and whined, and I was a little surprised at the number and the passion of the replies. "Everybody uses that when they want to sound smarter than they are!" one person Tweeted. "Nobody uses that right--it's the last refuge of the armchair critic," someone else complained. And, given that the reviewer in question finished up with, (and this is paraphrased) "I guess this kind of thing is okay for the *average* reviewer but it's not good enough for me," I think they could have been right. Like I said, in and of itself, this review didn't do anything that hasn't been done quite a few times before: It criticized my work. So what? Lots of people--and lots of critics--have trod that clearly un-virgin territory before.
So what got me wasn't the criticism--I'm developing a thicker skin to that--what got me was this particular phrase. She used this buzzword in the wrong context, and it's unfortunate, because whether she liked MY work or not, she was obviously very serious about making her point. EVERYBODY who uses this phrase wrong is serious about making their point, and that part of me that taught pubic school for damned near eighteen years really wants to help them--whether they're eviscerating me in prose or not. It just seems like someone needs to set the record straight.
"Showing not telling" is a phrase coined by an educator named Rebekah Kaplan to help high school writers find their voice. If she was anything like me, her teaching technique came after reading the umpteenth frickin' paper that stated something like "I love basketball. I mean, like really really love it."
The enterprising Ms. Kaplan started to teach writing by STARTING with that phrase-- and then having the student writers SHOW someone loving basketball. They would do it by all of the things that writers do--details, word choice, simile, metaphor, connotation, and poetic diction, so that "They really loved basketball. I mean, like, really really LOVED it." Becomes...
Xander Karcek pounded down the glossy wood of the court, thigh muscles straining, huge biceps pumping, and sweat dripping into his eyes from his black bangs. The ball sang against the boards in front of him and popped back into the palm of his wide-fingered hand as he dribbled furiously, strides ahead of the enemy, in perfect position to score.
Instead, he popped the ball behind him with the next dribble, and Christian Edwards caught it one-handed and continued the dribble down the center of the court. He didn’t have to look behind him to know Chris was right on his heels—he never had to look behind him. Chris would be there. Chris didn’t know how to fail. And this way, when the opposition came up behind Xander, arms spread, legs wide, ready to block the shot, Xander was there with surprisingly wide shoulders for a guy who stood six feet, nine inches tall in his size eighteen bare feet.
And Chris, the center, leapt into the air, twisted his body, and made the shot with a chest-high dunk, and the fifteen thousand fierce voices, echoing around their bodies until the sound was so thick you could cut it with the slice of a sweating hand, exploded into shrieks of unholy, furious joy, singing Chris’s praises.
Just the way it should be. The whole world should sing Chris’s praises.
Xander and Chris passed each other as Chris recovered his running stride from the dunk, and as they got into position to intercept the other team, they faced the opposite direction. That’s when their arms swung down from the elbows in a smooth low five, and they snarled at each other in triumph.
God, they loved this fucking game.
The Locker Room
Now, that's a rather complex piece of prose there--because it could also be a "showing" paragraph for a couple of other "telling" sentences, such as, "They played well together," or "It was a good moment," or even "Xander loved playing with Chris."
But it is, as I said and Rebekah Kaplan meant, a series of details, word choices, connotation and poetic diction that creates the image of two men loving a game together. It's, uhm, the way I write actually. I mean, that's the first paragraph of the book--it's not like I STOP doing it anytime after that, right?
Now in a longer piece, this technique can be used to demonstrate all sorts of things--and I was fond of telling my students that the best use of poetic techniques was to evoke strong emotion. When used on a larger scale, it can set the tone for an entire book--or even just a chapter. To go back to The Locker Room, there is a chapter in which Xander repeatedly tells people, "I'm fine!" while tripping, breaking his toe, throwing a basketball at his coach's head, and playing basketball until exhaustion. The chapter is pretty much a "showing not telling" example of a man who is NOT fine, and it makes us feel bad for Xander, without him ever once saying, "I miss my lover so badly I want to die."
If you do this with an accretion of details--Chris's choice of dressing up, the way he showboats at games, his difficulty with algebra in high school, his refusal to take the lead in the relationship--and you have depth to a character, and a deeper portrait of a man who is comfortable in the spotlight but who acknowledges his own flaws, even if his lover doesn't see them.
If you do it consistently throughout a work, you have used the details to establish tone, motif, and theme.
So, if that's "Showing not telling", and it's something that I do and that I understand, what is it exactly that this reviewer was objecting to?
If I had to take a stab at it, I'd guess that it was use of third person limited omniscient narrative voice.
Now some people are going to read what I'm about to say and take it as proof that I am pretentious beyond all belief, but you'll have to forgive me. I spent twenty-three years learning how to or teaching others how to analyze the literary canon. When I write myself, those are the examples I go to for literary voice, simply because I haven't spent that much time analyzing the stuff I read for fun. Yeah, I know this is somewhat of a dichotomy, but, well, it's what I do. It's how I enjoy writing. It's an inoperable part of my literary voice.
One of the interesting parts of the third person limited omniscient voice is that you can, as the narrator, make observations of indirect characterization masked as direct characterization. An example of this, from Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities can be seen here:
Sydney Carton, idlest and most unpromising of men, was Stryver's great ally. What the two drank together, between Hilary Term and Michaelmas, might have floated a king's ship. Stryver never had a case in hand, anywhere, but Carton was there, with his hands in his pockets, staring at the ceiling of the court; they went the same Circuit, and even there they prolonged their usual orgies late into the night, and Carton was rumoured to be seen at broad day, going home stealthily and unsteadily to his lodgings, like a dissipated cat. At last, it began to get about, among such as were interested in the matter, that although Sydney Carton would never be a lion, he was an amazingly good jackal, and that he rendered suit and service to Stryver in that humble capacity.
In this case, Dickens TELLS us that Sydney Carton 'idlest and most unpromising of men' in the same paragraph as he SHOWS us that the men who possess only superficial talent have begun to depend on Carton to do their dirty work for them.
I like the irony that this approach gives us. As I was fond of saying when I taught, if there is a difference between what the narrator indicates in direct characterization--"Sydney Carton was the idlest and most unpromising of men," and what he demonstrates for us in his indirect characterization--"Stryver never had a case in hand, anywhere, but Carton was there, with his hands in his pockets, staring at the ceiling of the court;" (for those of you who don't remember or haven't read the book, this was the same attitude Carton displayed when he saved Charles Darnay's life in court--this is a very subtle way of telling us that Carton did all the work and Stryver took all the credit.) Anyway, differences in layers--direct characterization and indirect characterization, or among any of the five layers of indirect characterization--these things give us friction, friction gives us irony, and irony gives us more to think about when we read a book. For me, it gave me Xander having the shittiest day of all time while telling people he was fine. That right there is irony--and not once did I, as the third person omniscient narrator, have to step in and tell people that the guy was hurting. Although one of his indirect characterizations (speech) told us he was fine, the other indirect characterizations--his appearance, behavior, and what the other characters thought about him told us he was not. These are the things that third person limited omniscient narrative can give us with a little bit of sly commentary thrown in (witness Dickens) and this is the reason I like this approach sometimes. God, sometimes it's just hella frickin' fun.
So, at a guess, I'm going to say that this faintly archaic narrative technique is what drove this particular reviewer batshit. And I'm sorry she didn't like my work. I've said it before--many times before--but I'll say it again. I write what moves me. I write to move other people. When other people love that, I am SCARY appreciative--I'm kiss-the-ground-in-the-rain grateful, but in order to write at all, I've had to get past the point where I try to please all comers. So, for those of you who don't like my narrative voice--I'm sorry. Seriously--I apologize. I know what it's like to pick up something that people keep telling me I'll like only to find that it's not to my taste at all--I'm sorry for the disappointment. But I'm not going to try to write any differently--I like what I've got going. It works for me.
So, you all may be asking, why did I bother to post this at all?
Well, the thing is, armchair criticism is becoming a bigger and bigger spectator sport. Hell, if you look at Smart Bitches/Trashy Books, it's even getting to be lucrative, and when done right, it can help moderate an industry in which the most iconic contributors (big presses, press reviews, brick and mortar stores) have become lumbering, clumsy Goliaths, and in which the the new, spryer Davids (e-pubs, book blogs, e-book readers) are without discipline or regulation. The social media has made it possible for the little guy and even the little genre to have support, guidance, and legitimacy in the big indifferent world--and not just for the bigger 'legit' sites.
Armchair criticism (criticism via the social media) is important because if the publishing world is going to reform itself around reader expectations, reader/critics have got to be clear about what their expectations are. Now some armchair critics (and this is the category I fall into personally) simply say "I liked it. It moved me," or, "It wasn't my cuppa, but I'm not going to sound off because I'm not going to go to all that trouble for something someone else might have loved." Those armchair critics are fine-- seriously--in a way, they're the people writers are writing for, and we love them to death!
But if the armchair critic does more than simply say "I liked it" or "It wasn't for me", and she sounds off with passion but with no information, then the armchair critic can be blown off--and that's not fair. People who go to the trouble to put their studied opinion into writing for the benefit of other readers deserve to be taken seriously. However, if armchair criticism is to gain any credibility, it has to be ready to play with the big boys. All of that bullshit that our English teachers taught us in ADDITION to "Showing Not Telling" MUST come into play. If you are an armchair critic who wants to be taken seriously, and you were lost when I was talking about direct and indirect characterization, word choice, irony, poetic diction, connotation, third person limited omniscient narrative voice, tone, motif, and theme, then you need to get your game on. Any genre that wants to be taken seriously is going to have writers who use all of these items and more, and who know how to use them in context, and who, in fact, have mastery over them. If these writers (Josh Lanyon, Marie Sexton, Z.A. Maxfield, I'm looking at you!) are going to get their due, then the people who are reviewing them and commenting on them in public and for real are going to have to know and use the same things they do.
And, just like high school students mature into post graduate and even professional writers, if e-publishing media is going to mature, we all have to get past the point where Showing Not Telling is the be all and end all of our critical repertoire.