Monday, 10 June 2013

Show Don't Tell

In Praise of Shorter Stories

Ernest Hemingway famously said,

"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 has been pointed out by others, that 'showing' takes more words than 'telling'. I disagree. Poetry manages to convey so much in so few words. By employing certain powerful words that trigger emotions and memories in the reader / listener, the writer can open up a myriad of thought and feelings that do not need to be written down. It is the reason we enjoy quotations so much. To convey the sentiment of an entire tome within
a few well chosen words. Powerful. I try hard to remember this principle in my own writing process. It is far from easy. Firstly you tend to slip back into 'telling' without realising it. It's less effort. With dedication and a certain amount of luck (feeling right at the time), I might spot my errors of 'too much telling' during my editing process and improve them. The great Raymond Carver wrote a wonderfully straightforward essay on this subject entitled, unsurprisingly, 'On Writing.'

Generally I get most pleasure from reading short stories. Chekov, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford are my particular favourites although I have many more. Many novelists also write excellent short stories, or have done in the past. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Orwell, Katherine Mansfield, John Updike, Norman Mailer are just a few. I read a Margaret Atwood short story recently that I especially liked. Steinbeck and Orwell in particular, seem to me to write novels in the condensed style common to short story writers. It is often thought of as characteristic of American writing and Steinbeck appears to utilise the 'show don't tell' principle very effectively. In his great novella, The Pearl, Steinbeck manages to convey so much of the emotions, the cultural background, the sense of family that is fundamental to the motivations of the characters, without actually telling us in words. It is the 'less is more' rule demonstrated at its finest. Steinbeck plants a seed with an image, a perfectly chosen simple word or two and the reader's imagination does the rest. The Pearl is only 90 pages long but those are some of the most powerful 90 pages I have ever read. Incidentally it has been pointed out to me that some of Hemingway's prose runs into some lengthy drawn out passages of agonising detail. I confess I do not like all his work and I think he could have learned a lot from the likes of Steinbeck. Perhaps his impulsively bullish character made up for it in charm, however.

Often when I write a short story, I end up editing it into several versions of differing length. Initially I did this in order to enter my stories into writing competitions, which usually require stories limited to a maximum number of words. It took me a little time to discover that readers always seem to get most from the shortest versions. Stories I have refined and refined, condensing them down to an essence. Sometimes these are short enough to be called what have come to be named 'Flash Stories.' In this form, the story seems to more effectively capture people's imagination. Some readers, I find, have interpreted the story differently to others. This is bound to happen with the 'show, don't tell' technique, where people are using their own background experiences to fill in the gaps. Some writers might balk at this. They want their readers to understand exactly what is in their (the writer's) mind. This is not a problem I suffer from. I am happy for my stories to be a trigger that opens up a number of slightly different stories in each reader's mind.

I accept that the experience of readers preferring my shortest stories could be peculiar to me, but I do not think it likely. Raymond Carver in his essay, On Writing, talks about how when he was at university, all American writers were trained in this way - a process of continuous condensing and reducing. Checkov and many others also believed this process to be necessary in training writers. Most people find it very enlightening. I certainly do. I would encourage all fiction (even non-fiction) writers, therefore, to try it. I think we should all periodically repeat it as an exercise throughout our lives. Take a piece you have written – a story, an essay or an article perhaps – and condense it. Set yourself a word number as a target. Once you have achieved this, try producing a shorter version, perhaps a third shorter than the last. Continue until you have something of about 140 words, then show it to someone who knows the full length story well, and see what the result is.

Of course an example is perhaps the best means of explanation. Here is an example of a flash story that began life as a short story of around 4,000 words. It has been published at two different lengths but this shorter version tends to receive the most praise:

The Bottle Lady of Luang Prabang. By Mark Swain. From the book 'The Truth In The Lie'

Days pass slowly, most beginning with breakfast at our street café. Lethargic and oppressed by the heat of the day, we take our usual table outside on the street, amusing ourselves with small goings on, exercising our powers of observation and hypothesis.

Today our attention is drawn by the chink of glass from somewhere in the early morning traffic haze. Across the road we see a haggard old woman with a handcart, collecting bottles and sorting them on a small patch of waste ground adjacent to a hotel. A kitchen cupboard lays dumped there. I propose she lives in it. Comic, the others think, until she climbs inside and slides the door shut. We stare, waiting, but she stays put. Our focus shifts to our breakfast. Feu – clear soup with a basket of English country garden to throw into it.

Some time later a policeman arrives. He knocks on the old lady’s door. Abruptly it slides open.
“Look, he’s going to move her on,” I say.
But no, handing her a coffee and a cigarette he passes the time of day and departs, tipping his hat. We pay-up and leave. Normally we might have put forward theories about her – she is his mother, or an informant perhaps, keeping a watch over the neighbourhood. But not today. Today we are unsettled. Quietly we pay and leave.

No decision is made to cross the street, yet we do so without hesitation. Passing her camp we notice a strange phenomenon. Smoke exuding from the plughole of the sink. A silvery plume rising in the still air. An ethereal, swirling rope, climbing to the heavens.
Reluctant, ill-fitting legs carry us back to our guesthouse, our minds still entwined in the rising smoke. Incredulity has left us silent – spellbound.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories - including THE TRUTH IN THE LIE, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

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