Writing and publishing

Show don’t tell

chuck palahniuk

I spend some time on an internet writing forum.  There have been a few forum threads that have exploded over the titular writing maxim.  One post in particular is based on some advice Chuck Palahniuk had written somewhere: ‘you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires’ (quoted from the forum post concerned).

So, it continues:

‘Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him”, you’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned (sic) there, again.”’

The point being that it is always better to demonstrate why it is a character feels, knows or believes something.  The description brings more life and colour to the prose.

Much of the response was of the ‘there’s no one best way to write’ variety, laced with varying degrees of foaming rage.

Rage or not, the maxim is broadly right.  But the lesson, like most lessons in writing, is a good one to think about, to try out, to see if one can get some marginal gain in the quality and vivacity of one’s prose.  And it’s about context.  George Orwell said, of his rules of writing, ‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything downright barbarous’.

I love the description above, but it’s deceptively good out of context, clearly being more ‘show’ than the much simpler first sentence.

But these extra sentences describing Adam and Gwen’s attraction would only be worth the effort if it’s an important goal of the writer’s to illustrate that developing attraction.  Consider the following example of some preceding text:

It was nice of Adam to offer me his phone to call mom.  I didn’t know him, I just had a locker nearby, quite often saw him there with this older girl, Gwen.  Between classes, Gwen was always…….

Now that extra description seems redundant; his locker’s warmth, the heel mark, the perfume, all seem over the top when the two characters are hardly known to the narrator.  The rule of thumb, predictably, needs context, suggested parameters for effective use.

Of course, these details are the sort of details somebody very interested in either Adam or Gwen would be absorbing, perhaps his envious best buddy (Gwen was a goddess to be worshipped, a five-nine cheerleader with mocha skin and eyes only for Adam.  Gwen was always….).  Here, the narrator’s noticing of her heel marks, the perfume and the locker’s warmth are all great, solid context for such an obsessed soul, drinking in every detail of her.

This advice dovetails as well with another ‘golden rule’ – use specifics to illustrate the general.

The passage effectively paints for the reader a picture of a girl with attitude, possibly beautiful, certainly desirable, without once describing her actual face or body.  The rolling of the eyes is not the rolling of the deep blue eyes.  Thank god.  Choosing to describe the warmth of her ass on the locker, out of all the possible things the writer could choose to describe, reveals a great deal about the narrator, it’s a choice of description that works hard to illuminate more than just the sequence of events in and of themselves.  I happen to like it also because warmth is a tactile sensation, not a visual one, and it’s always wise to bring the other senses into one’s rendering of a scene.  The smell of perfume adds to this; we are immersed in the smell and touch of this girl, but in particular, perfume is associated with the neck, which, with the more overt ‘ass’ mentioned, are both intimate and sexually charged parts of this girl’s body.  They linger as an echo of her presence, giving the reader a sense of lingering desire, or longing, for this girl.

It’s a fantastically hard working paragraph in terms of description and character development, superior of course to the simple ‘Adam knew Gwen liked him.’

Except when Adam and Gwen aren’t pivotal to the story.

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