Thursday, April 5, 2012

Writing/Gaming - Show versus Tell

Time for a classic debate. Time for some good ol' fashioned barroom brawling over what-to-do-when-and-what's-better. Time to roll up our sleeves and get really INTO our work.

Today we're talking Show versus Tell.

I haven't brought this up on the blog before, but I think it's time. Now I'm going to come at this first for the book people but then for the game people, because while many of those elements overlap, the game design aspects have a spin on them that changes the nature of the debate. Let's introduce the sides of the debate...

This is more explicative, and treats the reader as more of a current viewer of the story. Also, this gives the reader the sense that the story is unfolding AS they read it, which helps make them feel like they're more a part of the story, and they enjoy it more, so they read more, so in theory if you've written more, they'll buy more. This is also a slower approach to developing characters, scenes, settings, and actions.

Were I to show you what I'm doing now, I have the option of treating your eyes like a film camera and zoom you all the way in to show you my fingers striking the keys on my awesome ergonomic keyboard. Or I might show you the room I'm writing in, describing it as the stunt double of a book and game store right now. Or I might start you in from above the scene, and sweep you into the office via the window, past the curtains and in over my shoulder to watch me write this sentence.

Regardless of how I choose to do it, the important thing is that the action and the character and nature of what's going on is unfurling around you in a relative real-time. I'm showing you that I'm writing this, because...that's what I'm doing now. I'm showing you the laundry basket of clothes I need to sort together for this weekend, because it's relevant to the distracting thought I'm having while I write.

Remember Rule #1 - Writing is the act of making decisions. And I, the author, am deciding to give you a view of the action AS it happens, so that you feel like a part of it, so that you can take advantage of all the details I'm providing, so that you have the most complete picture on your mental canvas.

Showing can consume more space, use more details, take more time and tax a writer more (because there's more work to do) than Telling, but the payoff is greater. Even on a egoic sense, through good use of Showing I can show-off (see what I did there?) my ability to write pretty sentences or describe things really well or demonstrate just how much "in charge" I am while you're reading.

Telling is more direct, but it does require the assumption that the reader trust the author. The author is giving specific details and specific explanations of details so that the reader knows what went on and what is on-going. It's a little more clinical, but also more subjective (if the voice doing the telling is biased or unclear or not omnipresent).

If I were going to tell you what I'm doing now, I can start in any fashion I want - If I want to set a tone that I dislike my work or my day or whatever, I can tell you that detail while I tell you what I'm doing. I also don't have to describe or paint any picture outside the relevant facts to what I want - When I tell you that I'm really sort of worried about X because of Y reason, I don't need to involve the awesome description of the wind chimes out the window if I don't want. (Remember, decisions)

Also, telling compresses time. It's fast-forwarding through actions you may not want to dive into, it's speeding through the lulls in action. This is particularly true if you go so far as to tell me that time has passed. (Two months went by...)

Telling allows the world to pass by, change, develop and grow outside of the bubble of the story, which we can cut back to when the action/story/drama/stuff resumes.

So What's All The Fuss About?
People, books, careers and media outlets make a huge fuss over showing and not telling. Yes, it's a problem. Yes, it's something a writer should be aware of. Yes it often requires a writer work harder to paint the picture for rather that telling me about the picture they're seeing.

Telling when you should be showing IS NOT a sign of a "wrong" writer. It's a mistake, for sure, but it's not enough to ban you from all forms of communication and shun you to some weird leper colony.

Like so many things, there should be a balance between the two -- you shouldn't be all one-or-the-other, and I'd be a little leery of anyone who advocates so strongly to exclude one side too often.

There are going to be things you tell, and things you show, and it's important that you figure out which is which in your story.

What Can I Do?
If you're expecting a checklist here, there isn't one. I'm sorry. But since we're all telling stories differently, the checklist is too circumstantial. But what I can tell you to look for are some key elements:

1. How close (or far away) do I want the reader to be in this scene? Do I want them over the shoulder of a particular character? Do I want them floating above the entire scene? Where do I want them focused?
2. What's important in this scene? Is it one character more than another? Is it the environment around them? Is it some tension that's conveyed without speaking?
3. What comes AFTER this particular scene? Where are we going from here? Do I have to ratchet up the emotion/action to get things rolling forward? How can I help this scene go into the next one?
4. What do I want the reader to take away from this scene when they're done? Should they have gained plot-critical information? Should they get some character-developing info? Are they just going to read that same description about the same chair over and over? Is anything new here?

In a later post I'll likely explore specific examples of each. Right now, authors, tell your stories. Get them all out of your heads, past the scratch notebooks and into some drafts. Just produce material for now. There's a whole other round of editing and developing that can happen AFTER you get the story out. But that's later....go tell me the story first.

Authors, happy writing.

Gamers, you're up.

For you, this debate has all the elements discussed above with the added issue of mechanics.

Because a game has to on some level be instructional, and teach the players what they can do, mechanics have to SHOW you HOW and TELL you WHAT.

Show me (the player) how to adjudicate different situations. Do I roll dice? Which dice? Show me the examples.

Tell me how to handle combat. Is there one mechanic I apply repeatedly? Are there steps? What am I allowed to do? What can't I do? (And why, don't forget the why).

There's still a blend required, still a balance to strike in the economy of show-and-tell, but you can use the mechanics as a lens and a bridge to walk the reader/player through the base of the story so the players can expand it as they see fit -- and yes, you do have to let them.

(Note - I really thought it would take me longer to say all that, but I'm satisfied.)

Happy writing.