Show and tell

The balance between action and exposition

I know I promised that this post would be about description, but before I talk about how to make an efficient description, I thought I needed to establish WHEN descriptions might be useful. So today, we’re going to address one of the oldest, most well-known rules of good writing: “Show, don’t tell.”

Telling the reader something is explaining it, in a long descriptive paragraph, without using dialogue.

Showing the reader something is to let him or her experience it in real time, as it happens, through actions.

It should go without saying that it is far better to show the reader through action than to tell him. Why? Because action is poignant. It’s immediate. It holds our attention, and we get caught up in it. You should avoid telling the reader at all costs, and always favor action. Usually, that is what we tend to do as writers, but there are a few pitfalls in which we tend to get caught. The most prominent ones in show, don’t tell are the traps of exposition and backstory.

Exposition is the art of conveying information to your reader. As an author, of course, we want the information we convey to be understood by our readers. And unfortunately, because it’s SO important that we be understood, our first instinct is to underestimate our readers and break into explanation in the middle of action, just to “make sure”.

Don’t. Your readers are as intelligent as you are. I don’t know about you, but it never fails to make me roll my eyes when a writer repeats information 3-4 times to make sure I “get it”. I like to understand for myself, and I’m capable of it. And by doing that you’re not only assuming your readers are incapable of this, but you’re breaking your stride; your reader wants to follow the action, and chances are he or she will skip over your explanatory paragraph anyway. Besides, and more importantly, guess what? You don’t have to explain anything. You’re already giving information; every single word you choose is information; every action your character takes, every reaction he or she has to a given even is information about his or her psychology and background, and the best kind of information you can possibly give is dialogue; the way they speak, what they say or don’t say. Dialogue is not only a very efficient way to give out exposition and character simultaneously, but it’s also the best, most immediate kind of real-time action there is. Don’t worry, there will, of course be one (or even several) posts on dialogue!!

Most writers, even beginners, are pretty good at avoiding excessive explanation when it comes to exposition, because as readers, they have a good sense of how to present things, if they’re only willing to give their readers the benefit of the doubt. The biggest trap these (and I would say, ALL beginning authors, and even some experienced ones) fall into is that of backstory.

It’s hard to know when a story should begin. In my future, more detailed posts about structure, I will start by explaining where a story should start, but to make a long story short, it should start as close as possible to the trigger, which is the point where things start going very fast. And a lot of authors have a very good sense of this, and manage to pick a good beginning to their story. However, once they have it rolling, they become petrified with fear that because we don’t know the main character’s whole life, or because we don’t know everything that ever happened before the trigger, we won’t understand. It’s very true that sometimes, there is some information that we need, but there’s no reason to break out into a huge explanatory paragraph, or worse, begin with a lengthy and unnecessary prologue that details the entire life of the hero before the story begins. The prologue always seems like a good place to throw in all that backstory, because, well, if it goes before the beginning, shouldn’t it… go before the beginning? No. Absolutely not. It’s natural to think that, because of our chronological perception of time, but the fact is that backstory piled into the prologue not only utterly fails at hooking the reader into the story, but also provides information at a place where it is not needed, therefore ensuring that it will not be retained.

The very best way to dole out backstory is to wait until it’s needed. That is, to wait until the reader is asking “well, what’s this all about?” before providing him with the answer. If he’s been asking, chances are, he’ll not only welcome, but also remember the information you’re providing. These odds are made even greater if you give a little at a time, piece by piece. This will also keep the pages turning, because he’ll want to know more and more, instead of having to muddle through a long paragraph of exposition of which he won’t retain more than a third, even if he is trying.

There are also other ways than pure exposition to give backstory. The best way is, again, dialogue. Dialogue, just like narration, should not be put in one solid block, but they should alternate between each other. I find that the best way is to have a character explain it, and if there is a lot of it, alternate between narrating it in his or her point of view (don’t forget that this POV must already be the dominating one… don’t switch in the middle of a scene!) I find that this works best in first-person narrative.

Finally, there is the flashback. This can be done well, but to work, should be used sparingly. If you find yourself falling into the flashback constantly, then you should be wondering which story you are trying to tell… if the present story is not poignant enough to hold your attention, as an author, and your main concern is the backstory, perhaps that is the story that you should be telling.

The last point is very important. The amount of backstory you give should never equal, much less exceed, the amount of story you give. If it’s that important, then you’ve either chosen the wrong story to tell, or you’ve started your narrative too late, and a serious revision, if not rewrite, should be done. Or you’re writing a series, and the backstory should be another book; in any case, remember that every time you insert backstory, no matter how you do it, you are effectively cutting the flow of action of your story, and you will need to bring it back up to a forward momentum every time you do that, so keep your pauses short, and few and far between, to keep the reader hooked!

3 thoughts on “Show and tell

  1. Great article which gives plenty of room for thought. Thank you for contributing to the facebook discussion on prologues. I’ve tweeted this.

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