Tuesday, January 13, 2015
We hear this often as writers: Show, don’t tell. If you’re telling us what is happening rather than showing us, you’re a crappy writer who may as well poop on the pages and tell the readers to read that.
But recent events are leading me to think that, judiciously used, telling, not showing, can be an effective writer’s tool.
Consider this scene from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind:
Everybody else in this show – Roy Neary’s family excluded – gets to see these freakin’ UFOs. But those guys in the Indianapo9lis Center for air control, they get to see nothing. Nothing outside of a few streaks and blips on a radar screen. The whole scene is telling, not showing. The only “show” we get is the alarm when the traffic conflict is recognized by the computer, and the crackling in the radio traffic when the UFO flies by the airplane. Everything else is just told us.
Or is it?
We get a lot of showing in this scene. We feel the tension build in the ATC as the captains of these two planes relate their condition, and as the emergency mounts and disappears just as suddenly as it came. But there are no cool UFOs. Not like this scene.
But note how similar these scenes are. Because we don’t get to see the UFOs playing with the electronics or with the mailboxes – until the lights turn on. And the CB traffic after the UFO goes away – that’s the same kind of telling, not showing, that we get to see in the ATC scene. As is the case with the birds, the crickets, the barking dogs – all coming back on after things have gone back to “normal.”
Why do they work?
They tell the story through heightened tension. They give us hints and clues as to what’s going on. They put us into the story and we can’t get out and we want to keep on reading or watching. They don’t give us a break – they ratchet us down and lock us into the story.