Should We Be Telling, NOT Showing? – Day 298

In my day job, the content I am writing is progressively getting shorter. Articles that used to be 600 words now need to be 400 words. Brochure copy is becoming more like caption writing. Web content is basically slogan building. (Well, not quite. But you take my point.)

Besides being concise, it also has to be straightforward. I love adding subtle innuendos and implying certain things rather than bonking people on the head with it. Perhaps I’m a natural shower-don’t-teller. Not a good thing in marketing, necessarily.

Well, turns out people want to be bonked on the head more and more these days. With so much information out there, they don’t have time to read your work, process it properly, and appreciate it. It needs to be pre-processed, bite-sized chunks they can swallow whole before moving on.

For myself, I know that my attention span is shortening at an alarming rate. I don’t know if that’s age or if I spend hours every day flitting from email to Internet to project to Twitter to email… Actually, there is a theory out there that our brains are becoming hardwired to multi-task – except that since we can’t truly multi-task, all we’re doing is essentially scrambling our brains. (I can’t find the book I heard about this in – if you know, please leave me a comment!)

I wonder if the same trend is happening in fiction? And should we cater to it?

As I mentioned above, I love weaving subtleties into my writing, but what’s the point if they are getting missed? It can actually be counter-productive, because if you implied something in Chapter 2 and then rely on that implication in Chapter 5 to relay information, it could lead to confusion and frustration for the reader.

Is there something to be said for spelling it out for the reader? Should we in fact tell, not show?

I’ve been considering this for some time now, and what I’ve come up with (tell me if I’m wrong) is that we should do both, if possible. Keep the prose straightforward, but weave in subtext only for those who want to look for it. Kind of like the Disney movies that weave in jokes for the adults to keep them from being bored out of their minds.

Perhaps then we should be taking a page out of Hemingway’s book: simple sentences, few adjectives and adverbs, easy-to-grasp concepts.

(Personal admission that puts a fly in the ointment: I don’t like Hemingway’s books, mostly because of his style. I appreciate the style, I know what it took for him to develop it, but I don’t like it.

I’ll wait here while you gather the stones….)

I am consciously trying to do both in my novel right now, and it’s difficult. The prose is definitely not as sparse as Hemingway’s, but I am fighting my tendency to allude to things and rather just spell them out. I am, to a certain extent, telling and not showing. I’m taking out the guesswork for the reader, at least for the important plot points.

That being said, I am adding adult lines in there too, à la Disney. But those are only there for the people who want to look for them.

Will it work? In a few months, hopefully, we’ll start finding out. (That’s me alluding to the fact the novel should be done by then… And that’s me bonking you over the head with it. Which do you prefer?)

~Graham

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4 Responses to Should We Be Telling, NOT Showing? – Day 298

  1. Nicholas Carr writes often about the wiring in our brains and how environments like the Internet (his blog is called Rough Type; the specific books is called The Shallows).

    He’s not necessarily suggesting the Internet is rotting our brains, but trots out some convincing evidence that the kind of activity practiced on the Internet (lots of stimuli, very little “quiet” time) does in fact cause our brains to wire themselves differently.

    If you believe in the plasticity of the human brain (probably accurate), then maybe we’re not all simply getting old; we are changing the way our brain functions…
    TC/The Writer Underground’s most recent blog post: Interview With a Successful Writer: Novelist, Screenwriter Lee Goldberg

    • Graham Strong says:

      Thank you!

      Yes, that’s the book — The Shallows. I’ll have to pick that up.

      Seems there is a lot of scientific evidence out there to suggest the same. Very scary to think that simply surfing the Internet — regardless of the content, just the act itself — could have such an impact.

      On the flip side, it does also lead credence to the ability to “keep your brain sharp” as you get older, at least in theory. Not sure if the latest version of Brain Games actually works. But it might be worth a shot. (Now if I can only remember where I put that Gameboy…)

      ~Graham

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