WRITING MYTHS DEBUNKED---MYTH 2: You have to spell things out for your reader. Otherwise, they might not "Get it."
I am writing a series of posts on writing myths and debunking them one by one. This one is short and sweet...
2. You have to spell things out for your readers. Otherwise, they might not “get it.”
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
~ Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
“… I'm just a soul who's intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.”
~ Single by Nina Simone, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
And here’s the dilemma, you’re writing an amazing scene, everything is falling into place. It’s complex and carefully woven, but you’re afraid the beautiful subtly of your creation will be lost on a casual reader.
The truth is, a lot of readers don’t read closely and if you’ve spent months and months crafting out a scene, there is a real fear that the effort will be lost if you don’t make it very, very obvious your intentions to the reader.
I don’t know how many times I’ve worried that my meaning will be lost if I don’t state it explicitly. And the conclusion I’ve come to is this—have faith in your readers.
It boils down to the old adage: Show, don’t tell.
We love to say it, but what does it really mean?
Put simply, showing means using imagery and description to create a context where the meaning is implicit, rather than explicit. In other words, you describe the idea in such a way that the reader understands what’s going on without directly stating it.
Imagine a horror movie. Often times, the scariest parts of a movie are when the monster/killer is unseen. What makes it scary? The music creates mood, the dark shadows imply there are scary things we can’t see, but are obviously there, and the sounds, the expressions on the actors’ faces, all of it works together to shape a monster/killer shaped hole. We know he’s there, even if we can’t see him. And because all of our senses are engaged and, most importantly, because our imagination is utilized, to the viewer, this is much scarier than when the monster pops out and we’re faced with the limitations of costumes/CGI/etc.
The same is true with writing. What you’re doing when you show, rather than tell, is you allow the reader to engage their imagination to paint part of the picture. The more engagement a reader has with the writing, the more they’re going to get out of it, the more the story is going to stick with them.
Here is an example of telling:
I was excited. The party would be my chance to show everyone how sophisticated I’d become in New York. I dressed in the really expensive black dress I’d bought in New York, trying not to think about how much money it had cost me. I did my makeup like I’d seen the women in New York do their makeup. I studied myself in the full-length mirror. I looked good. I was happy.
Now, here’s the same concept, but written with showing:
An electric current ran just below the surface of my skin. Three hours until the party, until I showed up, remade. I smoothed the wrinkles out of the dark black dress I’d acquired on 5th Avenue. So what if I had to eat ramen for the next six months? Worth it. I applied the thick, black eyeliner with a steady hand. My lips were a shocking shade of scarlet. Staring back at me was a real New Yorker, not the country bumpkin who was too shy to ask Taylor McCain to the movies. The electric current was radiating up into my throat, now, releasing a tiny squeal.
We’ve all heard this before. But I think what is important to remember is we must put our faith in the reader. And, more importantly, put our faith in ourselves that we’ve shown enough to involve the reader’s imagination in a way that their participation is intricate to the storytelling. Writing may be a solo activity. Reading can be a solo activity. But storytelling… that’s a collaborative process.