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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Overtelling, Overshowing, Overselling

What if the most poignant parts of your story are the parts you don't say?

Beginning writers hear it dozens of times: show, don't tell. We cross out "Ted was mad" and say, "Show us how angry Ted is so we can feel it," and the intermediate writers dutifully show Ted punching walls, clenching his teeth, and stomping up the steps.

The next step is to show all your characters' feelings, not just your POV character's, so that when Jill watches Ted stomp up the steps, she knows he's feeling mad without having to tell the reader, "Wow, Ted was furious."

I've worked recently with a few newish writers on their first novels, and I'm picking up a trend from them: the need to reinforce their stories. It's not technically wrong, but it's giving their stories a feel I have to call amateurish, and I want to call attention to it, because it's standing in the way of otherwise good fiction. I'm going to call this overshowing and overtelling.

When we first start telling stories, it's difficult to prioritize what needs to be in and what needs to be left out. Back when I was in college, one of my best mentors read one of my early novels (I owe the poor woman a case of hard liquor for that service) and she told me to back off the reader. "Don't keep reminding us of things," she said. "Every time this character showed up, he had green eyes. Every time. I thought, maybe they change? No, they're always green, and eventually, whenever he showed up, I'd find myself waiting for the green eyes."

We do this because as writers we're afraid the readers are going to forget, or are going to miss something. Or, it's a more insidious problem: it's not the readers we doubt.

She continued, "You can trust us. I see you showing us something, like that he's angry, and then you tell us he's angry. But you can trust us: trust your reader that we'll get what you're doing. And more than that, trust yourself that you did it right the first time."

(When you get a chance, check out the TED talk on designing a book cover. At 3:03, take special note of what Kidd says about the word 'apple' and the picture of an apple, how you may have one but not both.)

If Jill insults Ted, we know it's an insult because we're paying attention, and we're smart. When a writer follows it up by saying, "Jill smiled at the cleverness of her insult," we as readers feel talked-down to. No doubt what the writer wanted was to make us think Jill's insult was pretty funny, but telling us twice has the opposite effect: we back away because it reminds us we're reading a book and for that second, we're no longer experiencing it.

To be really extreme, take something like this:
Ted picked up the pottery jug, glared at Jill, and smashed it against the wall. Ceramic shattered against the concrete. "That's what I'd like to do to your head!"

Quick: what's he feeling? What's the tone of his voice?

Now imagine it if I do it this way:
Ted angrily picked up the pottery jug, glared at Jill with fury, and in a fit of wrath smashed it against the wall. Ceramic shattered against the concrete while Jill stared, wide-eyed in terror. "That's what I'd like to do to your head!" he thundered.

By the time you get to the end of that, you're pretty much snorting with laughter, like okay, I get it, he's pissed. But when a writer does that over and over, it's as if the writer is holding the reader's hand and trying to guide her toward the emotions she should be feeling in the scene, rather than relating the scene and allowing the reader to do her job and really feel it.

Okay, so now you know not to overtell and overshow. But what if you take it one step further and deliberately undershow and undertell? How would it work? I'll tell you, done right, it works beautifully.

Try framing it the way Ivy Reisner did to me: partner with your reader. Give two parts and let the reader fill in the third. Ted picks up that pottery jug and cocks his arm, and in the next moment, ceramic shatters against the concrete. Your reader will know he threw it at the wall without your saying so. If Jill takes a pregnancy test and shrieks when reading the result, the reader will probably know what it was.

I call this 'elision.' And it's a lot of fun: how much can you remove without losing the reader?

I didn't invent this literary technique, although as far as I know I'm the only one who applies a linguistic term to it. If you've read Pride and Prejudice (if you haven't, go do it now) the moment of the proposal is rendered obliquely: Mr. Darcy makes it known to Elizabeth, and she gives him to understand her acceptance. We don't truly witness it, and yet we know it happened. In Sula, Toni Morrison shows Sula swinging Chicken Little by the arms, and even though it's a pivotal moment in the novel, his slipping from her hands is rendered in a dependent clause such that we never see it happen; we never know whether it was accidental or intentional.

It's a game of Jenga with your story, only the structure gets stronger when you remove the unnecessary bracing. Readers instinctively engage when they're hungry to know and you're giving them just enough at just the right times...but not too much.

Does this require your reader to pay attention? Yes. Does it require you to place a great deal of faith in both your skills and your reader? Yes. Will some people miss a point until they've read the story twice, and therefore many will never get some of your finer details? Yes.

Is it worth it anyhow? Absolutely yes.

Sometimes the writer's most important job is to get out of the way of the story.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy, to be released by MuseItUp this coming September. She is also author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 


ChiTrader said...

Thanks for a most informative post. I have never considered undershowing, undertelling, etc. Elision is a new one for me, but it makes great sense. I'll try it in my writing.

Unknown said...

This is a clear and frank explanation, Jane. Like you, I see the tendency to over-explain as amateurish. The writers who heed your warning will gain a precious advantage. Thanks.

Hope Clark said...

Yes, yes, yes. One of my pet peeves. It's a problem I fight falling back into to, and it's a lesson that's hard to teach to new folks in a critique group. Good explanation.

C. Hope Clark
Lowcountry Bribe, Feb 2012
Bell Bridge Books

Janice said...

Jane, this is a great post. Even though I'm on the umpteenth draft of my novel, something like this gives me yet another way to think how I can tighten it even more. I'll be watching for "elision" opportunities!

Unknown said...

I have recently been over some early writing and it most of it was overcooked... I don't think I do it as much now - but a great reminder that less is more!