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YMMV: Don't Show, Don't Tell, Cue

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We've all heard the adage: "Show, don't tell." It is, if we're being completely honest with ourselves, a bit over-deployed. It's mainly aimed at the kinds of new writers who think describing events is the same as telling a story, but once you reach a certain level of craft proficiency, you realize that showing versus telling is more about the trade-off. To show something is more engaging, but to tell is more expedient. Sometimes you "tell" in order to preserve pacing. Sometimes you "show" because you can make it into an amusing bit. But sometimes it's best to just do neither...

Don't Show, Don't Tell, Cue

So why is showing-versus-telling even a thing? The reason has to do with something I talked about in the last post: backstory. Backstory, for the uninitiated, is the necessary context for your story that isn't actually a part of the main plot. This can be everything from world-building to character details, e.g., it's the origin of the Ring of Power, but it's also the reason Frodo is afraid of water. And if there's one thing that can be said about backstory it's that it, as a rule, is not very interesting. Because if it were interesting, it would be part of the story.

This is what "show, don't tell" is an attempt to correct for. Showing backstory is an attempt to bring it into the main story. The Lord of the Rings, which I've already brought up, is a useful example. The second chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring is called "The Shadow of the Past" and it has become an in-joke in the writing community. After the first chapter, in which things happen, we get a second chapter that is nothing--and I mean nothing--but backstory. And this is a pattern that new writers will frequently copy, much to their detriment. Get your exciting opening, and then immediately pile on all the history, and then raise an eyebrow when other writers jokingly refer to your second chapter as "The Shadow of the Past." Lather, rinse, repeat.

The movie adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, by contrast, moves most of that backstory into a prologue, telling it in an extended flashback that serves as the exciting opening for the film before slowing down for character introductions. Quick-cut flashback montages are not something you can really do in prose--the basic unit of storytelling is the scene, after all. So when you "show, don't tell" on the page, you're taking these elements and portraying them as fully developed scenes as a part of your story. Whether they belong there or not.

Thing is, they frequently don't. Sometimes all you're doing is collecting lore. The Five Nights at Freddy's franchise is particularly bad about this. They just keep piling on the lore until it has become almost incomprehensibly convoluted (and yet my children still can't shut up about it), but none of it matters. "Chuck E. Cheese but literally evil" is not a premise that requires a great deal of explanation. But sometimes you just can't resist.

New writers of speculative fiction frequently fall into the trap of overwriting backstory because that richness is one of the things that we fall in love with about fiction. Whether its the vastness of Tolkein's legendarium or the political intrigue of George R. R. Martin or the ARG Marvel-style continuity of Brandon Sanderson, loving a story and then realizing that there even more depths to plumb is very appealing. New writers want to create worlds and they want that creation to be reflected in the finished product. But is it necessary?

Remember, backstory is "necessary context." If it's not necessary, it's not backstory. It's padding, or it's easter eggs, or it's texture, or it's just plain old intellectual masturbation. If you can take it out and the story still holds up, that means you don't need it, and you should seriously consider not having it. Because it's important to allow space for your reader's imagination--and your own imagination. If I may borrow a metaphor from Marissa Lingen, if you build too many pillars into your work, those are things that you're going to have to build around.

So how do we do this? How do we communicate what's necessary while still leaving space? The answer is simple. Don't show or tell. Cue.

Remember waaaaaay back at the beginning of this nonsense when I wrote a post about describing with actions? I talked about how sometimes what a character does reveals enough about them that the reader can form a mental image without needing to be explicitly told. This is that, but for backstory. You can imply backstory by cuing the reader to think about certain ideas, and then allow them to fill in the rest.

Now it should be noted that cuing happens all the time, typically in the context of foreshadowing. Say you're watching a movie and one of the female characters throws up unexpectedly. We all know what that means--it means that in a scene or two we will learn that she is pregnant. You are being cued to think that well before any of the characters bring it up. Gone Girl (the book) does this quite well. Mild spoilers, but halfway through the book it is revealed that one of the perspective characters has been an unreliable narrator. They periodically will do things off to the side, sending text messages that are never explained and what-not. It gives you a feeling that there's something slightly nefarious going on with this character well before the big reveal.

Cuing for backstory works a bit differently, though. For one, it needs to be a bit more obvious. If a reader misses the foreshadowing, they still get the reveal. But if they miss out on the backstory, then the character feels flat to them. So you can't be too subtle. But you can be vague, because--just like description--it doesn't matter if the reader gets the right mental image as long as they don't get a mental image that contradicts the action of the story. And since backstory is not part of the plot, you have a ton of leeway. Let's look at an example.

Holly ate her pie, pretending not to see the gentleman watching her from across the diner. He was older than her, wearing a cheap brown suit and an expensive gold watch.

Who is the man? If I've done my job right, you should have guessed that he's a retired cop turned private investigator. But, here's the thing. Even if I haven't done my job right, it still works. We know the man is following her and that this is, presumably, pertinent to the story. If this is backstory-not-foreshadowing, then it doesn't matter why he's following her, only that there is some reason for him to be doing so. It's not subtle, but it is vague, and that's usually enough.

Because even though backstory is "necessary context," the details of that context aren't what make it necessary. Giving a character a past makes them three-dimensional, regardless of what that past is.

If you think about it, you've seen this kind of thing all the time in side characters. Ever met a character with an unexplained scar or limp? Or someone who wears a particularly unique style of clothing? Or has a defined fidget? Or a Dickensian name? Broadly speaking, this is just characterization, but the effect is that it creates an illusion of depth while still leaving room for the reader's imagination and for the author to go back and ret-con them later if they want to.

And it works for main characters as well. I just finished The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal, in which the main character is dealing with chronic pain and PTSD from an accident she suffered before the story began. For the first half of the novel, it's only ever referred to as "The Accident." And it still works. We see the trauma she's gone through, and that provides the necessary illusion of backstory. We then get the details in flashback when it becomes pertinent to the story.

Just as it works for characters, it also works for settings. Anything that evokes the past creates the illusion of depth, but it doesn't need to be comprehensive. You can make it up on the fly if you want to. And, in fact, vaguery is often preferable. Think about the Clone Wars in the Star Wars universe. Those were almost more interesting when we didn't know anything about them.

But what if you want to devise a rich and storied history for your world? That's great! Use it as a pool of resources to cue from. I return to Lord of the Rings as an example. Tolkein's legendarium is vast and thorough, but very little of it actually pokes through to the book. We see ruins, we hear tales of a time of kings and the glory of Gondor and Arnor, but it's not usually laid out in fine detail. You don't have to have read The Silmarillion to understand what happens to Frodo when he sails to Valinor and leaves Middle-Earth. But the fact that he does so was informed by the world-building that Tolkein had already done.

Next time, why you should never do things on accident...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.