Today in the Dojo: When it’s appropriate to give “show” a right proper boot in the arse and let “tell” have the floor.
“My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
Show vs. Tell has become one of those sacred commandments of writing, and there’s plenty of folks out there who would burn you at the stake for disobeying it. Dramatize, we’re told. Show don’t tell. Every writer’s magazine and book rack will have copious words devoted to this golden rule of writing, so I imagine it’s going to shock the hell out of you when I tell you to sod showing. Tell vs. Show, how’s that for anarchy?
Let me explain.
In the midst of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series cum tree-killing monstrosity Song of Ice and Fire, I finally pinpointed why it irritates me so. He dramatizes bloody everything. In fact, he’s so busy dramatizing scenes that he’s had to cut other scenes and present them after the fact in very brief summaries or in character dialogue/memory/flashback/what-have-you. The poor man probably does not even realize he’s slave to the Show vs. Tell rule, and it’s making me suffer.
Of course, he’s a damned good writer otherwise, so I have to keep reading. Damn him.
But back to our program.
In a large and complicated book, and often even in smaller books that have to keep a quick pace, the Show vs. Tell rule is going to strangle us if we follow it too closely. It’s something I learned while writing the first book of the trilogy (which has been shunted aside due to realizing this is a series, not a trilogy with a few prequels). At first, I was picking scenes out one-by-one and dramatizing them. No flashbacks. No narrative summary. No out-of-sequence. Then one day, I realized that with all I had to dramatize, the trilogy would end up being a trilogy in 42 volumes. This is bad for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because readers aren’t generally immortal, and neither am I. Something had to be done. In desperation, I turned to a trick I’d seen Robert Jordan use: time dilation.
I spent a whole chapter summarizing events, with only a few tiny dramatized bits. When I got done with it, I shuddered. “Oh, gods,” thought I, “this is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It skims too much.” But I gave it to my Wise Reader anyway, and she came back with nothing but praise. “I loved how this chapter covered so much,” she said, and went on to cite several of the events in it she’d liked just fine, even though I’d broken the Show vs. Tell rule. I began to think I could get away with this on rare occasion.
So can you.
WHAT IS THIS TIME DILATION?
Simply put, Time Dilation takes a sequence of event and boils them down to a narrative essence. It summarizes. It makes the choice that, for the sake of the flow, full scenes will be forsaken for itsy bitsy scene fragments set like rasins in a bread of narrative summary. It skims. It samples. It takes a chunk of time – days, weeks, months or years – and telescopes it. It gets us from one huge event or set piece to another with a minimum of fuss and bother, but without the jolt of a line break or short transition. It’s almost an extended transition, but whereas most transitions are only a paragraph or two at most, time dilation can cover several pages up to a chapter or more.
Well, it is. It’s so easy to use, one could end up writing the majority of their book that way, and that is no way to write a book. Think of time dilation as bridges. You need bridges. They’re useful. But you can’t build a city out of them. Not even if you make them really big and put houses on them.
It’s also damned easy to muck up. There’s a huge difference between being able to dilate time gracefully and making a total hash out of it. You have to make wise choices as to what you dilate, where, for how long, and in what sequence. You also have to make sure to get enough dramatization in there to make the dilation feel like showing even though it’s not, but not enough to make it a choppy sea of mini-scenes. We’re back to rasin bread again. You can have too many raisins and you can have too few.
SO IF IT’S SO DANGEROUS, WHY SHOULD I DO IT, DANA?
I guess you won’t accept “Because Dana says so” as a proper response, so…
You should do it because it smooths your reader’s path through your book. It gets them quickly through the bits where not much is happening but a few important things need to be covered. It keeps you from overdramatizing scenes not worthy of dramatization, and from relying too much on flashback, interior monologue, and really silly “As you know, Jeeves, this happened last week” sorts of dialogue. And it makes you look like a pro.
ALL RIGHT, I’LL DO IT. BUT HOW?
It will be my pleasure to tell you.
There are several elements to consider when doing time dilation. Let’s take it from the top: knowing where it’s needed.
Time dilation is perfect for those times between major scenes, when several things are happening that are dwarfed by what comes before and after. It’s also quite useful when you’re going from an arc following one set of characters and heading back to a subplot that needs to catch the reader up with another set of folks. If you’ve got a handful of stuff of minor interest that can’t be shuffled around because of chonology, format or what have you, time dilation could be your alternative to having a string of tiny scenes that catch the reader up or get him from A to B but bore him to death in the process. Last thing we want is dead readers, right?
It can also be damned useful when you need to build a major plot point in blocks. What I’m talking about here is, your character must connect some dots to have a major breakthrough. Time dilation can help you accomplish that with elegance.
Time dilation in its essence needs to do one thing: get the reader from A to B with a few points of interest (mini-scenes) along the way.
Now that we know what it is and what purpose it serves, let’s have a look at some of the varieties of time dilation.
TIME DILATION: CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER
This is the simplest form, appropriate when you’re just getting the story from one major event through a series of little events up to the next big event. It can begin something like so: “The rest of that day ended in a blur for Dave, and the next few weeks weren’t much better.”
We then go on to summarize what happened to Dave over those weeks. We might begin with a bit of narrative summary leading us to the next afternoon, when Jones comes up to him with a mini-crisis: the computer ate the budget files again. Instead of fully dramatizing this event, we’ll take the gems from it: the bits of witty dialogue, Dave preventing Jones from attacking the computer with a baseball bat, and then quickly on through the next few days, with only brief diversions into other mini-scenes: the argument with the landlady over rent, the car breaking down, etc. All of which will eventually lead us to Dave putting all those little bits and pieces together at the end of the sequence and realizing that the computer problems are the answer to his problems: with the budget in such a mess, he could so easily skim a little money out of the company accounts without anyone noticing a thing.
That’s the secret to time dilation: you build toward a crisis with those mini-scenes that is going to end the dilation chapter with a flaring match being touched to a fuse. You’ve taken the reader through a critical time in Dave’s life, showing all of the little straws that finally broke the camel’s back, and you’ve managed to do it in chronological sequence so the reader can see each straw being placed just so, without being bored to tears with in-depth descriptions of each damned straw.
TIME DILATION: CENTRAL THEME
There’s another form of time dilation that happens to be my favorite: the out-of-sequence dilation that builds around a central theme or event. This is what I used in my own successful foray into time dilation, and it’s a powerful tool.
In this version, you’ll still be dilating time, but you’ll be chopping it into bits and recombining those bits into a mosaic that forms a picture by the end. This is best used when you have several things happening around the same time, but which have more power if they’re grouped together by meaning rather than chronological order. It will only work if you have a central theme to be illuminated.
Your central theme has to be powerful enough to carry the mosaic. In my case, it was three words: faith, hope and trust. At the beginning of the dilation, we see Ray arguing with Luther against trusting Dusty with any of their secrets. Luther ends the scene by telling him to place his faith, hope and trust in her hands and see what she does with them. Those words begin to echo through Ray’s mind, and the dilation begins. The narrative takes us through his next several days, all out of order, with every mini-scene placed to reinforce that theme. Each mini-scene shows him another aspect of what faith, hope and trust in her hands will mean, and brings him closer to the moment in which he realizes that Luther was right. By the end of the sequence, chronological order is restored, and when that happens, Ray’s confusion has cleared. He understands her better, and is starting to trust in her the way Luther does.
USING TIME DILATION WISELY
Time dilations need to be used sparingly, and they should be placed for maximum power. A book of time dilations interspersed with a few big scenes won’t read well: neither will a book where some of the most important events are dilated rather than fully dramatized.
So here are some handy pointers to take away with you:
1. Place time dilations between powerful scenes or sequences. This serves two purposes: it gives the readers a chance for a breather, and keeps scenes with little dramatic potential from being overshadowed by very dramatic scenes.
2. Choose your mini-dramatizations carefully. If you have to write everything as fully-dramatized scenes in order to pick out the shiniest bits, do it. It’s worth the time you spend. You want the little fragments of dramatization to shine with as much brilliance as possible in order to keep up an illusion that you’re showing more than you actually are.
3. Make your prose narration gleam. Do not set your beautiful gems in brass. You’re a writer, damn it – write your heart out in this prose. Tell the story with all of the wit and wisdom and sheer power you can. Don’t skimp. You don’t want to over-polish your sentences, of course, but make sure they’re sparkly.
4. Use concrete detail when possible. Days of rain? Tell us how gloomy the rain was. Draw pictures with the scenery, the weather, the dragging days, whatever’s to hand. You’ve read narrative passages where the description was superb. Go back to those and see how the author managed to summarize without you noticing by putting the background to work.
5. Rising action is as much a rule in time dilation as in fully-realized scenes. The dilation is building to something, otherwise, you could just skip all of that and use a transition like “After a few days of blissful boredom, the world blew up in his face.” Both the narration and the mini-scenes should build that rising action. There has to be conflict, or it’s meaningless.
6. End with a punch. This is important. Time dilations need a climax, a cliff-hanger, a flame-to-fuse just like every other chapter. Provide them one and they will not fail you.
And please do remember, while showing is important, our business is called storytelling for a reason. Time dilation will help you tell a better story. Know it, love it, make it work for you.