Here’s a sign I snapped during my post-Christmas holiday in Yorkshire. Can you spot what’s wrong with it?
It is a classic example of a violation of a rule that fiction writers refer to as “Show, Not Tell”. What it means is this: if you spell things out unnecessarily to your audience (whether this be a reader, or a person in search of a pint), he will become frustrated in your lack of trust in his intellect or imagination. Whenever I see a pub blackboard extolling the virtues of how old, or charming, or historic it is, I’m very much disinclined to go inside and form my own opinion. In short, any pub that needs to trumpet its greatness probably has to do so for a reason: because its claims are grounded on wishful thinking. The best pubs become known as such through good experiences spread via word of mouth, not by chirpy phrases on a sign.
In fiction, the “Show, Not Tell” rule is notoriously slippery. The whole modus operandi of fiction, you might think, is to paint a picture for the reader and in doing so, lure him into your world. This is true, of course. But if you do so in an obtrusive, didactic way, you’ll only annoy your readers – and risk shattering that all-important suspension of disbelief, a spell that all storytellers needs to maintain.
One of my favorite authors is Neal Stephenson, and I waited three months to read his latest, Reamde, after ordering it off Amazon. Not only did I want unbroken time to enjoy the tale, but its 1.3 kilo bulk was too heavy to schlep around on the Underground during my daily commute, and I feared drowning in the bathtub under its sheer 1044-paged gravitas. So I took it with me to the North York moors just after Boxing Day and read it in several hour stretches between long rambles on the moors, and games of whist with glasses of port near the open fire in the pub under our room.
For the most part, I did lose myself in the plot – it’s a great novel. There was just one niggling problem with the prose: a tendency to over-explain, including a few instances of the above-mentioned violation. Even established writers get this wrong on occasion. Can you spot it here?
He set his bag down on one of the leather-upholstered seats, carefully, suggesting that it contained something valuable and delicate, such as a laptop.
Everything we need to know about the bag’s contents is adequately imparted by the use of the adverb “carefully”. (I say “adequately”, because adverbs are a fairly lazy way of “showing”.) The next clause about being valuable and delicate is overkill, and the third, about the laptop, is bludgeoning the poor reader over the head. We are being told how to interpret what we’re seeing, instead of being allowed to witness it all without explanatory footnotes.
“Show, Not Tell” violations not only insult the reader’s intelligence, but they leave nothing to the imagination. If this particular character – a hulking great bulk of a gangster hacker – was setting down a bag with care, I as the reader would instantly start wondering – what’s in there? Why is he worried about it? Is it a piece of equipment, a weapon? A laptop? Some other delicate item that we can only guess it? The suspense would ramp up in direct proportion to how much time I devoted to wondering. Instead, the author has basically fed it to us on a platter.
Such clumsy constructions are easy for any writer to make, which is where talented editors come in. When I’m working on a novel, the early drafts tend to emerge over-explained, with too many adjectives and adverbs. Revision, for me, is the process of shaving away words until only a glimmer of the sentence’s core essence remains. And after this, external readers tend to point out where I still haven’t gone far enough.
Being in Yorkshire showed me in other ways how difficult the writer’s lot truly is. I tried to describe the following scene, low tide at Whitby, in several emails to friends, and failed completely. So instead of a thousand words, I’ll close with this picture:
Happy new year, all!