What writer in their right mind, when asked for writing tips, doesn’t say “Show, don’t tell?” Okay, quite a few, because I’ve only heard that from a few people– but still, it seems to be well-seasoned advice. The writing community throws it around as one of their biggest problems with narrative, and it does seem to be prevalent even in published novels. It’s a tricky thing. Still, as renowned as it is as the bane of all micro-edits, the problem of showing versus telling does not stop there. It’s amazing how much boredom stems from this very problem, and how much the macro-edit has to do with it as well.
Indeed, showing versus telling has as much to do with scenes and plot as with sentence structure and description. While “It was purple” might make a micro-editor cringe, it’s nothing to the sort of problems wreaked by an out of place explanation or a missing scene. Confusion ensues, followed by rapid rereads of the explanation in order to make sense of it, followed by apathy and then, finally, boredom. There goes one fan of the book. The overlong explanation that drags on for an entire scene and involves advanced metaphysics and time streams is useless.
But that’s a problem, isn’t it? I’m a fantasy writer. In the worlds in which I write, I’ve spent hours just figuring out concepts, let alone cultures, character backstories, and the setting itself. I have stacks of paper devoted to explaining natural phenomena to myself, in the hopes that I might find it useful in the course of the story. But how can you find things useful if you can’t explain them?
The author Brandon Sanderson has come up with a few laws of magic systems, which are quite useful for worldbuilding. His first law states: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” (From Sanderson’s First Law.) This obviously means we need to explain anything we’re actually going to use in the story.
Yes. Yes it does. We need to make sure the audience knows what we’re talking about when we save the day with exploding ducks. However, what better way to make them apathetic toward day-saving than to explain the exploding duck in agonizing detail? They don’t need to know the reasoning behind it, nor the way you thought of it at midnight after watching TV all evening. Unfortunately, they do still need to understand the tool you use to solve problems.
So. How to explain it… without explaining it? (Middle grade authors, epic fantasy people, listen closely.)
Make it happen. Devote a scene to, not explanation, but showing what’s going on. If a meteorite just hit the ground behind the main character’s house, don’t wait until the main character explains it to his neighbor– actually write the meteorite hitting the ground. It doesn’t matter how much passive voice or how many “is” verbs you use. It’s still more showing than that long explanation.
This is the reason many epic fantasies and such have prologues at the beginning portraying the evil person’s conquest. Why simply tell about it when you can show it?
However, Orson Scott Card makes a very important point in his Characters and Viewpoint: not everything you’re going to find in a book is showing. After all, we’re writers, not painters. We can’t show everything. But we can show what needs to be shown.
So what needs to be shown and what doesn’t? After all, if you spent your time showing all the different concepts in your world, you’d have a long trip even before you got to the story. So if not everything can be shown in the space you have, don’t show it all– just the main points. Show the stuff whose effects are necessary. Show that which the readers must see to believe, or see to understand. Explaining the suspense involved in hunting penguins is useless, but showing them the hunt and letting them feel the tension, that’s powerful. But you can leave off explaining how to use the harpoon gun. No matter how you put it, that isn’t powerful.
A small side note on the subject of backstory and introduction: everyone says to cut the first few chapters of your novel because it’s full of unnecessary explanation. Of course it is. At this point, you don’t need any of it. But where does it go, then, if not at the beginning? Put it at the midpoint. That’s the place where everything becomes clear anyway– why reveal all your secrets in the first three pages? No, save the unnecessary emotional backstory until the middle, when we care about the characters enough to care about their emotions too.
And that’s all I have to say about that. Showing makes sense in the macro as well as in the micro. Remember that when you’re planning your next scenes.