Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

Writers are exhorted to show, not tell. Don’t describe what’s happening, put the reader INTO it. Naturally, there are exceptions to that “rule.” One being that there ARE NO rules. Sometimes, however, it’s what you DON’T show that keeps dear reader turning pages and makes those short hairs stand on end.

This can apply in many cases. Often what leads up to a torrid scene, the foreplay if you will, is by far more titillating than going with the characters into the details of the consummating act. Too often, the overused euphemisms for body parts and what’s done with/to them take away from the scene. Why?

The reader’s imagination is often far more vivid, given room to draw its own picture, than any you could draw for them.

Trust your readers.

Yes, you want to give them plenty of details, carefully chosen, to lead them where you want them. Perhaps you show what Mr. Bad Guy is capable of doing. Maybe we see him do it to a minor character. Maybe someone finds what he’s left behind. A madman is on the loose.

But say Cyndi knows something is wrong when she gets home (or to Grandma’s house.) The dog isn’t barking. It always barks. She feels it. She tries the door and it’s unlocked. She calls out. No answer. She pushes open the kitchen door and a scream freezes in her throat…

Cut to another scene.

Would the reader keep reading? You betcha. They hope to find out what Cyndi saw. Maybe it’s the madman gnawing on Grandma’s (fill in the body part.) Maybe it’s the dog, or what’s left of him. You can bet they’re going to want to know, and meanwhile, they will have filled in the blank with the worst they can imagine, based on what you’ve foreshadowed, teased with.

Or, say…

There are rumors of an alien presence. Most don’t believe it, of course. But it’s night (or maybe a sunny, spring afternoon), and Kyle is walking down the street (or across the meadow) when he hears a strange, high-pitched whine. He turns. He doesn’t see anything. He walks more quickly, though, and the air around him becomes electric, and he turns again, and before he can scream at what he sees…

What did he see? What happened to him?

Okay, those are cliff-hangers, staple of suspense from the beginning of fiction. But here we’re dealing with speculative fiction, and this writer finds the best element, across all the sub-genres within that broad family, is the one the genre is named for.

Speculative.

Let ’em wonder. Let the reader fill in the picture. Lead her to the well, but let her drink whatever is in there. Wait. Are you sure you want to draw up that bucket? To look down there?

When the story begins to show too much, it becomes like a movie that gets too graphic or too overloaded with special effects.

In my novel, a friendly, benign ally diverts a minor player while others carry out a plan that she, the minor player, musn’t see. But unseen to the others, a dark force takes him over. We cut to the others, and later, we come back to the discovery of a pair of legs akimbo in the supply closet. We don’t see what the discoverers see, but we know it’s horrifying. And the next time we see the “friend,” he has scratches on his face. What happened in that closet? What did they see? From earlier scenes, we have an idea, and it isn’t pretty. The reader can paint the picture as we move on, knowing what the nice guy’s friends don’t.

And what else can that invisible power do? Where is it from? How did it “turn” a nice guy?

The details we choose must give enough specific information to allow readers to fill in the details we choose to leave to them to imagine. And isn’t sparking the imagination the essence of Speculative Fiction? Different worlds, invisible forces. Things shown and things not seen.

Except in the mind of the reader.

Our job is to lead the reader to that well. To that room.

Do you trust your readers to use the colors you’ve given them to paint the picture, to make up their own minds about a question you’ve left for them?

It’s not enough that we speculate. That’s the nature of our fiction. But don’t we want to make the reader speculate as well?

I’ll leave you to think about that.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

  1. LucidDreamer says:

    I absolutely agree! I often believe that the readers’ minds can create something much better than I can, IF I have led them to the right point. They fill in what’s scarey, sexy, etc. TO THEM and that’s much more personal than me just giving a blow-by-blow of the action.
    I never actually describe my aliens’ true form in my novel because… they’re alien. They can’t really be seen and comprehended in their true forms by humans. I want to keep them somewhat mysterious so that they can remain “The Other”.
    I’ve mentioned this before, but some of the old suspense/horror movies do this so well — like the original “Cat People”, or the original “The Haunting”. Of course, the book, “The Haunting of Hill House” is equally brilliant at this, as is the book version of “The Woman in Black”.
    Good post!

  2. Thanks, Lucid, and I agree. I tend to “see” what I write as if it were on film, and that’s so true of many older films like the ones you mention. I also left my aliens up to the reader to see.

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