Meta-level Show Don’t Tell

Show. Don’t tell. So much wisdom in so few words. And yet, there’s still more than one way to understand them.

I’d accepted the offer to attend the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference last week for the synchronicity of it, not because I had a manuscript to pitch to the assembled agents and editors. My choice of talks to attend was therefore not geared towards that goal, but rather to give me fresh perspective on what I’ve been doing, and how I was doing it.

In a talk about short stories, the presenter enumerated Setting, Characters, Point of view, Plot and Theme, but the way she approached it, the idea was to pick your setting and characters, and then throw a curve ball to instigate the action. The plot then grows naturally from the cascading effects of that action. It all made perfect sense, but as I sat there, something just didn’t feel right.

In another talk, the presenter spoke about showing rather than telling the hidden parts of a story, such as people’s emotions, or the things that a reader might be able to deduce from what you show them. But as valuable as what he said was, he was specifically talking about the mechanics of presenting the story in words, which is the surface level of the process. Something seemed to be missing.

Afterwards, when I sat down to thank my benefactor, I realized what had been bothering me: I don’t write that sort of fiction. My stories are not simple vignettes about a character in some random situation facing adversity. Such stories are pleasant as far as they go, but I find them pointless. I’m far more interested in showing, through a story, an idea, or a way of seeing the world. That’s probably what the first presenter meant by Theme, but in her schema, it was anything but the starting point for crafting a story. Instead, the discussion about theme was focused on boiling down what the story was about, as an analysis of what had been crafted.

What I do is start with the idea I want to explore. From there, I play around with possible ways that the idea could be realized in a series of events, and craft a situation that shows the idea in the form of how that situation unfolds. That gets me to the setting and initial circumstances. From there, I doodle with what sort of character might be in the situation I’ve postulated, and why he or she is there. With a setting and a main character, I ask myself what happens from there, to set up the immediate actions that we open on, and then flesh out who the character is, finishing with his or her name. At this point, the ‘reality’ of the character’s world starts to jell, and I sketch the very beginning of the event cascade I’m about to unleash. That’s when I start writing the story, and I let the world create itself as I go.

So it’s not just a matter of showing. It’s what you’re showing. And there are deeper things than emotions that can be shown in the form of stories. There are ideas.

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