Every writer on the planet is probably familiar with this adage of writing advice: “Show don’t tell.” The phrase boils down to the fact that people will find something much more compelling if they see it with their own eyes, as opposed to just being handed it as a fact. Would you rather go to Paris, or read the encyclopedia article about its history? (Airline fees and Muslim rioters notwithstanding.)
This goes farther than just info-dumping your characters’ positive (or negative) traits, though. The easiest way for me to understand something is by example, so I’m going to pull out some examples.
My examples come from TV, but they’re just as applicable to other forms of writing. Novelists can still use this in the way they focus their prose, with the actions they choose to show.
First of all, I was binge-watching Monk and MacGyver a few years back. [potential SPOILERS alert]
In the Monk
episode “Mr. Monk and the Girl Who Cried Wolf
“, a man is stalking Nurse Sharona as part of a plot to convince her she’s going crazy. He follows her around, only showing himself when no one else is there, and dressed as a violently murdered corpse. With his face covered in (fake) blood, a knife (supposedly) in his chest, and the end of a screwdriver sticking out of his ear, his appearance is disgusting and horrifying. In his first appearance, he staggers out from behind a pillar in an empty parking garage and zombie-walks toward her car, muttering ominous things. As she screams and runs, he slumps against her car, turning to let the audience enjoy a full view of his gruesome get-up.
I just averted my eyes.
Around the same time, I watched the MacGyver episode “The Challenge
“. Something of a departure from normal episodes, it dealt with the issue of racism with perception and emotion. A friend of MacGyver (this is almost a death sentence by itself) is kidnapped by Ku Klux Klan wannabes. We see a villain scene where they threaten their captive, while MacGyver is desperately trying to find him. Finally, MacGyver finds where his friend has been hidden. Seeing him strung up by his arms with his back to the door, MacGyver approaches the man cautiously. Nerves are raw. The music plays with our sensations.
MacGyver puts out his hand to turn his friend around, and the camera pans, so that, still, all we see is the man’s back. But what MacGyver sees breaks him. I’d watched several episodes in a matter of days; I’d seen MacGyver calmly do his science-y things with mobsters breathing down his back, or focus on getting a machine to work while a natural disaster drew closer by the second. Yet, somehow, when he finds this gentle, hardworking man of color murdered, he staggers back through the door…sobs “No” a few times…and drives his fist through the drywall.
The viewer is riveted. They never see this horror that the racist thugs have done; all they see is the man’s innocuous back, and the weeping widow following a covered stretcher out of the building. And MacGyver – level-headed, problem-solver MacGyver – punching a hole through the wall just to relieve his own wrought emotions.
In the Monk episode, I was indeed scared, but on a disgusted level. The MacGyver episode horrified me, lingered in my psyche, made me wonder what abomination had been done to break our hero’s cool.
View and learn, writers. Your crime scene may be full of gore and violence; your mystic cult may indulge in undreamt-of horrors of perversity –
Is it necessary to describe your battle scene down to “the back teeth spilling onto the ice” (see Njáls Saga
)? Or would it be that much more meaningful, more impactful, more punchy, if you glossed the finer details, leaving the truth in a haze of character interpretation, and let the reader (or audience) summon the full horror of whatever it is in their own imagination?