By Maureen Lynas
|Look, I'm cross. Can't you tell?|
Do I have to actually spell it out for you!
I once attended an excellent weekend course run by Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. Each day was split into sessions based on plot, character, settings etc. and all was well until we reached the session on ‘Show Not Tell’ Blank looks all round. Explanations were given. Examples were given. But blank looks persisted. In the end, the tutor had to say, ‘One day you’ll all shout ‘eureka’ and the light bulb will click on.’
And she was right. But it took a while.
So now, in my own unique way I shall attempt to light up that light bulb for anyone who is struggling with the concept.
It’s all to do with The Gap
What’s The Gap? asked the reader who did not know.
Well, The Gap is the bit of the book that the reader writes. It’s the bit you leave for the reader to fill with their knowledge of the world, relationships, emotions, culture, history etc, etc. All of their experiences are brought to your book and they use their knowledge and ability to infer, and gather meaning from the text.
Okay (I hear you say slowly, possibly) but what does this have to do with Show Not Tell?
Allow me to give an example of Show with a shameless plug for my book
Florenceand the Meanies – Cupcake Catastrophe.
Mrs Meanie dashed into the drawing room shrieking, ‘I have news! Girls! I have news!’
She hung her cloak on
Florence’s head as if was a coat stand. Then she took a
deep breath and shrieked again. Florence
‘Oh, my clever little darlings. Oh, my pretty little pictures! You will never guess what’s about to happen in Cobbleton!’ She flopped onto a chair and fanned herself with a piece of paper. ‘Go on, guess!’
Now, bring your gap to my story. What can you infer? Who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Cast of characters? Age range? Genre? Time? Relationships? Emotional state? Can you anticipate a number of scenarios for what is about to happen in Cobbleton?
I’ll just wait a bit. So you can have a think.
And a bit longer.
I’ll add in some unnecessary Telling.
Mrs Meanie dashed quickly into the drawing room shrieking loudly, ‘I have news! Girls! I have news!’ She was very excited.
She hung her cloak on
head, as if
was a coat stand. She’s
always horrible to me, thought Florence ,
Then, she took a deep breath and shrieked again. It was loud. ‘Oh, my clever little darlings. Oh, my pretty little pictures!' Mrs Meanie really loved her daughters. 'You will never guess what’s about to happen in Cobbleton!’ Mrs Meanie had just found out a prince was coming to Cobbleton and she was so excited she could hardly wait for Armeenia and Philomeena, to guess. She flopped onto a chair and fanned herself with a piece of paper, because she was exhausted. ‘Go on, guess!’ she cried impatiently.
Hopefully you’ll already have inferred most of the info I’ve added as telling. Maybe not the bit about the prince coming but I bet you didn’t anticipate dinosaurs, aliens or cowboys.
One big area to avoid is Telling about the emotions of the characters.
‘Florence’s father is about to return,’ said Armeenia, with a nasty smirk.
‘Goodness me, no,’ said Mrs Meanie.
I knew it wasn’t, thought
. I knew it. She
scratched her nose and looked out of the window, blinking back a tear. Florence
Do I really need to say - what if he is on his way, thought
hopefully, or - blinking back a tear
because she was sad. Florence
A few paragraphs in and Cupcake Catastrophe provides a very useful example of how writing can work on two levels of The Gap.
Armeenia, the eldest daughter, was the pointiest person in the world. Her long black hair came to a point at the end of her ponytail and her nose was as pointy as a pencil point.
But Philomeena was round, and squidgy and completely pointless, with a head full of yellow ringlets that looked just like hairy springs.
The phrase completely pointless is the phrase I want to point out to make an important point of pointiness. It can be read on two levels.
On a literal level, it’s saying Philomeena has no physical points, unlike Armeenia. But on another level, a person with the ability to infer could read that there is no point to Philomeena. She may as well not exist.
A child might read it literally but an adult might get the joke or/and the point.
And that’s the introduction to my next pointy point which is to do with Age, The Gap and Show Not Tell.
I’ve witnessed children drooling over Working Partners Beast Quest books and it’s been a source of puzzlement. When I read them I was amazed at how little Showing and how much Telling there was. I struggled to understand their popularity. Until I started thinking about The Gap, and age, and reading ability. Cue another light bulb and another flick of the switch, please.
Children are only able to fill Small Gaps. Sometimes, if their life experiences are very limited, they cannot fill Any Gap.
This was so flaming obvious I’m quite embarrassed not to have made the connection sooner. But I have never found that point being made anywhere so had to wait until my neurons and synapses got together and shouted, Aha!
First of all, children have limited knowledge and experience of the world, people, emotions etc. So their ability to infer is less than an adult. Also, children are doing many things when reading a book. They are accessing key words from the ever growing (hopefully) lexicon of words recognised, and matching them to words understood. They’re building some words phonically and storing them in the lexicon so they don’t have to word-build every word, every time. They’re learning the meaning of punctuation. They’re keeping the words in their heads until they get to the end of the sentence and then they’re checking it for meaning. Have they got it right, does it make sense?
So, if they’re not quite ready to infer beyond the literal and want a bit of Telling in the books they read for fun it’s hardly surprising. Bring on the Beast Quests and the Rainbow Magic. And give the kids a break.
But, I have one more very important point of pointiness to make.
Because they have Small Gaps children’s fiction has illustrations to help them to make connections and develop understanding. But that doesn’t mean the illustrations have to Tell either. A point that world-famous award-winning Shaun Tan made very clearly, when he introduced me to the concept of The Gap at Seven Stories. (Not just me, there was a room full of folk hanging on every word)
“… I often like to think of words and images as opposite points on a battery, creating a potential voltage through a ‘gap’ between telling and showing. It requires the reader’s imagination to complete the circuit …”Shaun Tan
So, there you have it. But if you think you've 'got it' then think on this from the brilliant James Scott Bell.
Such a lot to learn!
"Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted."
Such a lot to learn!
Maureen Lynas also blogs on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas