The skeleton key to many literary problems, Show Not Tell, is an issue that fascinates me endlessly.
Like all rules, Show Not Tell does not always apply. There are countless novels that spend agonizing chapters dragging the reader through endless ‘show’ when they should have substituted it with ‘he was a dentist’ – or whatever the message was.
Yet it’s one of the most fundamental differences that set aside the good writers from the amateurish. It’s obvious in the earlier stages. When you start substituting ‘he put his handkerchief over his nose as the body bag opened’ for ‘the smell from the corpse was terrible’ you know you’re on the right track.
But there’s more to Show Not Tell. There’s the backstage work, embedded in the very language. Unsurprisingly, word choice represents a huge chunk of these stage mechanics. Defining meaning precisely will control reader response more accurately. Using the correct vocabulary is without question part of Showing.
Then there’s metaphor. This is where you can put wheels on almost anything and give it a V8 engine – and people will barely notice anything happened. They’ll feel. It is stunning how much of our language is made up of metaphors, even on a workaday basis. They are a high glycaemic index portion of our lexical intake, and our brains seem to thrive on them. It gives an instant boost. Overindulgence leads to cliché and absurdity.
I recently read an article which claimed that readers responded with far more conceptualised interpretations of a metaphorical action (for example, stretch for understanding, chew on a thought) than for non-metaphorical statements (stretch for a glass, chew on gum). 79% to 31%, precisely.
Now this may seem like the blindingly obvious: after all, a metaphor is almost by definition a concept so one must surely buy into whatever that concept is to either understand or explain it. A sea of troubles, a broken heart, time is money.
However, though metaphor is theoretically a concept, it is also real: because ideas are concrete objects when metaphorised. Most importantly, metaphor constrains the direction a reader forms their response into a very specific direction. So it turns the abstract, almost intangible, into a living, concrete form. A fence to surround and guide the reader mindscape.
Constraining reader response is mighty useful to a writer. Doing it in an unobtrusive manner – now that’s the real Show Not Tell. Maybe there’s another level but I haven’t been clever enough to figure one out yet. Any suggestions?