Show, don’t tell.
It’s one of the golden rules of writing. Every student has heard it. Every writer has had it said to them in a critique. Don’t ‘tell’ the reader what’s going on, let him experience it with the character, through sensory words, thoughts, and feelings. Don’t write, “He was angry.” “She felt so much love in her heart.” Don’t describe every step of the chef making his famous marinara sauce or every turn between JFK and the Empire State Building.
They call it lazy writing. Unprofessional. Immature.
Hemingway explained the concept as the “Iceberg Theory,” or the theory of omission. He described it like this:
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
It takes practice to balance description, dialogue, and actions so that the reader is drawn through the lens of the page, so he feels himself caught up in every incident, standing alongside heroes and villains, lovers and losers. It’s not automatic – this kind of writing doesn’t come naturally to anyone. Don’t let anyone tell you that it is not hard work. That this kind of writing simply flows from your pen or your fingers and appears, perfectly formed, on the blank page.
Instead, what the new writer usually delivers is a lot of telling. This happened and then this happened and then that happened, and here’s a few (hundred) pages of exposition that explains it all. With a great beta, experience, and practice, it gets better. We read great writers and emulate them. We see how they do it. We listen to those who are telling us the truth. And then our stories begin to live and breathe, and our readers happily lose themselves in our prose.
We expect professional writers to do better than our fan fic writing friends. At least I do. They’re getting paid, after all. Some of them quite a lot. They get the front-and-center shelf space in every book store. They get advances and six-figured contracts. Their names are known and revered – people pay to pre-order their books, and rightfully so. Doesn’t cream rise to the top?
Some say the top these days is in Hollywood. That television and movie writing is the writing of the future. And, come on, ‘showing not telling’ should be a piece of cake with a visual medium, right? Actors and sets and action sequences? Tearful confessions and wild love scenes? Colors and sounds don’t have to be described, the way the hero’s eyes crinkle up at the corners when he smiles, the way the woman puts on her suit and her stilettoes like a suit of armor. It’s right there! Right in front of the viewer! So much easier, right?
Then please, dear reader, explain to me why the current crop of television/movie writers cannot stop telling instead of showing? Why are tens of minutes wasted on endless exposition, on anchor-like dialogue that drags down the pacing and suspense like lead weights? On backstory that is barely comprehensible and not the least bit interesting?
I give you, by way of example, the new X-Files. If bad writing, bad stories and fan fic and books are recognized by telling not showing, then, by the same scale, the X-Files were a disaster. Regardless of hyper ridiculous “plots,” what ailed this much vaunted re-boot was the repetitive use of conversations between Mulder, Scully, Einstein, the CSM, and others to try to explain to the viewers what was going on. (Which, we both know, was impossible because it didn’t make sense in any way. Really. Horrible.)
Mulder talks to Scully at the farm. Scully talks to Einstein at the hospital. The CSM talks to everyone in both flashbacks and real time. Talk talk talk talk talk. I’m sorry, Chris Carter, but if all of these discussions happened in fan fic, you would be pointing and laughing. Oh, silly fan fic writers. You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?
Unfortunately, Chris is not alone. Major Crimes – another favorite – is using up so much of its tiny five episode winter arc in telling the viewer about a ten-year-old crime and introducing characters who will drone on and on about it ad nauseum.
Criminal Minds. It’s always been a bit talky, what with explaining the profile every episode, but in the latest seasons, it has become talk talk talk assume assume assume talk talk assume conjecture idea! Eureka! He’s a florist who was raised in a cage as a monkey!
Lazy writing. That’s what we’re told. Book and fan fic writers are criticized and laughed at for being less than professional. For telling. For having too much exposition.
Let’s hold the so-called professionals to the same standards.