Thursday, November 3, 2011

Reveal The Story

Writers are often admonished to Show, Don’t Tell. My roots are in the Show Me State, so I’m all for showing, but I think there’s enough confusion about the topic that some writers just don’t get it. I don’t know if it will help anyone else, but when I think about this topic I think in terms of revealing, rather than showing. That may be confusing also, since you can reveal something by simply telling someone, but I imagine that there is something hidden behind a curtain. While the curtain is closed, I can’t help but wonder what is back there. Someone pulls back the curtain a little ways and I can see something. There is a table back there and something is on it, but I’m still not sure what it is. Then they open the current all the way and I can see, that a magician’s top hat is on the table and he is about to pull a rabbit from the hat.

In a story, it isn’t just about action versus narrative. Narrative has a way of slowing down the story because it stops the clock, but the real question is whether the reader has a sense of discovery. We tend to get that sense of discovery with action because the things the character interacts with and how he does it reveals something about the story and the character that the reader discovers by reading between the lines. With narrative, the tendency is for us to give the reader the stuff we think they need to know.

Let’s look at an example:
While the video played, Robert adjusted the microphone hanging from his ear one more time. He pulled the transmitter from his belt and looked for the little red light then reattached it to his belt. The video reached the half-way point as he checked his appearance in the mirror. His polo shirt was buttoned. The sleeve weren’t turned up funny. His hair was combed and his teeth were white. He heard the words, “We were on the verge of losing our house” from the backstage monitor. Without looking at the screen, he knew it showed a man and his wife sitting on a sun lit porch. Ten seconds to go. He began his walk to the stage. The lights came up. He walked across the stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I know you’ve all seen plans for you to make money at home before…”
Now, compare that to:
Robert is trying to sell his latest money making scheme.
Clearly, the first example provides a better sense of discovery because the reader is allowed to figure out who this guy is, rather than us telling him. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t provide a sense of discovery with narrative.
Robert is in the business of promoting money making schemes. He is bankrupt.
This is narrative and some may call it telling, but it has revealed something about Robert that the reader might not have expected.