Monday, January 23, 2012

Question from the Comments

This is a really good question from Chemist Ken. It was posed on one of Alicia's posts, but I'm going to take it because this is a pet topic of mine.

I have a question about the sample text you wrote:

The grotto was ancient and long-forgotten, the mossy ground soft and rotting underfoot. The tiny pond was filmed with algae, and the air stank with the smell of the stagnant water. Even the rustle of the wind over the water was hushed and abashed.

Would that sentence or series of sentences be considered telling? I'm still confused by the concept.

 You're not alone in this confusion, Ken. The rule sometimes referred to as "Show, Don't Tell" is a shorthand way of advising against the use of exposition. Exposition is a narrative element, a way to categorize the words on the page, which basically refers to text that compresses, summarizes, explains, or otherwise reduces story material into condensed passages. We all learn expository writing in school, so for even the best fiction writers, we sometimes lapse into exposition almost as a default style in places.

Some exposition is necessary in every text. Micro-exposition (things like dialogue tags, thought tags, transitions, and other tiny bits of exposition) are key ingredients in good writing. The trick is not whether you have exposition, but how you use it. Here are some general rules of thumb for exposition.

  • Avoid long runs of exposition.
  • Avoid using exposition in place of action, dialogue, or description.
  • Make sure the interior monologue is actually interior monologue and not exposition.
  • Make sure the opening of your novel is as exposition-free as possible. (By "opening," I mean the chunk of text from page one until the start of the rising action, usually a few scenes, a few chapters, maybe 10-25% ish of the text, depending on story)
  • When you have to use exposition, keep it as brief as possible.
  • Exposition in the form of narrative summary (compressed events within the story's real time line) is useful for shorthanding trivial or repetitive action. But it should be kept as brief as possible.
  • Use action beats in place of expository dialogue tags.
  • If you're writing in a subjective point of view, eliminate expository thought tags.
I could go on. In fact, I could probably write a post on each of these points, and maybe I will. The point is that the use and misuse of exposition is a broad and complex subject, and "Show, Don't Tell" has become a shorthand rule of thumb for handling exposition.

But Alicia's sample is not exposition. It's description. Description is not "telling" in the same way exposition is, but description does contain its own set of pitfalls. For one, it can be static. If you look at Alicia's example, all three of her sentences contain a verb of being, "was," in some form or other. This is a static word -- not to be confused with passive voice, no matter how many times good-intentioned people insist that verbs of being are passive voice. The confusion on that point stems from this: Static verbs are the opposite of active verbs, and passive voice is the opposite of active voice. "Active" is used to name both things, so people sometimes think "passive voice" refers both to the type of verb and to the type of sentence structure. It does not.

In any case, although we generally say that active verbs are better than static verbs, this is anything but a hard and fast rule. Sometimes we want the emphasis in a sentence to be on something other than the verb, so a quiet little verb of being or appearance can help you accomplish that. Sometimes an active verb is so overused that it becomes worthless -- reach, pull, push, move, look, gaze, stare, and many more besides these, although active, have become associated with weak writing merely because they are repeated so frequently.

So, in Alicia's example, where she was trying to convey a still, dead, stagnant wilderness area, the description relied on static verbs. This makes sense. But if she'd been trying to describe a school playground at recess, more active verbs might have worked better.

I know I'm throwing a lot of concepts into a single post, and I hope it's not confusing. But I thought it would be better to do a comprehensive, if short, answer.



Bill said...

This was really helpful, by the way. I hope that you will have a chance to elaborate further in the future.

I've read so many novels that, on appearances, break the rules that unpublished writers are told repeatedly - but after your explanation, I felt an 'aha' moment.

Thank you.

Wes said...

Good info!!! But I'm gonna have to read this a couple of times to mine all the gems in it.

Jordan McCollum said...

I. Love. This. Post. Showing vs. telling AND was != passive? Love.

Thank you!