A still-to-be ‘properly’ published writer can spend far too much valuable writing (or should I say, practising) time reading about how to write. There’s no shortage of advice out there and anyone can get invaluable feedback on their efforts by joining a peer review site such as youwriteon. One phrase you’ll hear repeated like a mantra is, ‘show, don’t tell’. I found the best explanation of this on Emma Darwin’s website.
Why are traditional storytelling and narratives ‘told’ by an omnipotent voice so out of fashion? Why do we constantly need to bow to the ‘tyranny’ of ‘show’ (as Clare O’Dea puts it) in order to have commercial potential and stand a chance of being picked up by an agent? I think Anne Goodwin partly answered this when she accused creative writing tutors of too often equating fiction with film.
Typical comments include: Readers need to be entertained. Give them a ‘hook’ at the beginning and keep them turning the pages. Telling the story slows down the pace and readers will get bored. I’m sure all this is true to an extent. Maybe fledgling writers should study film makers as much as best-selling authors. With this in mind, I swapped my Kindle for a movie on my last long haul flight to Ireland. I was surprised to find that even Steven Spielberg can get it wrong when it comes to ‘show don’t tell’.
I hadn’t read any reviews of Lincoln, the movie which bagged 2 Oscars (although nominated for 12) including Best Actor award for Daniel Day Lewis. I have to say, without Day Lewis, I would have switched Lincoln off less than halfway through.
Lincoln is a highly polemical film. Although it starts with graphic action in the form of a Civil War battle scene (the essential must-have ‘hook’ for fiction too) the amount of ‘telling’ immediately after had me squirming in my seat. Basically, a black soldier relates facts and figures about recent losses and triumphs to Lincoln and analyses the situation for those of us who need a history lesson. History from Spielberg’s point of view, that is. It was boring and totally unrealistic ‘telling’, and dare I say, so ‘amateurish’ that if it had been in a novel opening, I’m guessing few agents would have read on?
Unfortunately, the ‘telling’ continued in other scenes – various politicians filling us in with ‘backstory’ about the 13th Amendment, and Lincoln’s black housekeeper (played by Gloria Reuben) relating her family history to the President. Some dialogue was embarrassingly obvious ‘info dump’. Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis was Lincoln) nodded sagely. Me, I practically screamed at my Emirates Airline mini-screen – ‘show us real black peoples’ lives, stop telling us their experience!’ And so to my biggest bugbear – in my opinion, the black characters were despicably shadowy in Lincoln. They were ‘used’ to make Lincoln look good – a hero, a saviour, a Messiah. Their lives away from the great man were invisible to the viewer and their oppressed experiences were condensed into bite-sized chunks of ‘tell, tell again, and tell some more’.
There was one moment in the movie when I felt Spielberg got it right – when he ‘showed’ the horror of war (apart from direct battle scenes) without ‘telling’ with the advantage of hindsight. In one scene, Lincoln’s son who has upset his mother by dropping out of college to enlist, goes to a field hospital and comes across a pit filled with amputated limbs. This is the advantage film makers have over novelists – their medium can use a picture to paint a thousand words. There really is no excuse for ‘telling’ in movies.
Which brings me back to writing fiction. When you must use words to paint your picture, is it really so sinful to do a tad of ‘telling’? Spielberg no doubt felt he had to inform viewers who might not be totally familiar with American Civil War history, Black Rights, the American political system, etc, etc. So why can’t agents, reviewers, and readers in general not overlook the occasional need for authors to include some backstory on a character, introduce an assumed unfamiliar culture, or mention key facts which may be essential to the plot? I suspect readers don’t notice ‘telling’ so much when the author is established or one of their favourites, but if you’re just starting out, tell at your peril.
As I mentioned, it was Daniel Day Lewis who kept me with Lincoln until the bitter end. Tommy Lee Jones was also superb in his role as the Leader of the House, albeit that he wore the most horrendous wig I’ve seen in a long time – all part of the period accuracy no doubt.
The movie is perhaps best described as a character-driven one and it is, after all, called Lincoln. Nevertheless, surely movies are obliged to ‘show’ the plot as opposed to relying on so much ‘telling’. Can one or two characters/actors carry the whole shebang on their shoulders? Perhaps.
Is it really true that new writers/storytellers who create superbly-rounded characters to drive their riveting plot have submissions rejected because of an occasional tendency to ‘tell’? Unfortunately, I think the answer is ‘yes’. In today’s competitive publishing market, it seems that every page has to be perfectly tuned in to the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra. New writers only get one chance to make a first impression with an agent, and I’m sure that principal also applies to agents pitching to publishers. To be commercial, you’ve got to ‘show not tell’ – simple. Become the writing equivalent of Steven Spielberg and maybe you can let things slip a little.