When to Tell

A few things have started to bother me about my writing style lately. I’ve always been someone who flirted with the concepts behind “show versus tell” – and I err on the side of telling being underrated. Telling is efficient, leaves less room for error, and when used correctly, is more emotionally effective. Personally, the line

his brow creased, his eyes flecked with depth, and his lip quivered. His very best friend, to him, doing this. Such an action took his very breath from his body.

causes me to roll my eyes if done too often. As a matter of fact, something like

“Dave,” he began, “Listen to me. Today, you hurt me. I’ll never forget that.”

feels more impactful in a lot of situations. There’s something so raw about a person just saying, “I’m hurting,” or “I’m so happy.” I’ve witnessed both in my life, and prose is great, but it can never match experience. I write because, as one can perhaps glean, I was exposed to a lot of experiences, first and second-hand, growing up. I want to share the emotions behind these experiences. Sometimes, I like showing, and other times, things are best told.

This last chapter of Mutual Benefits bothers me. I’m aware that I have my own view into the story and I’m biased, but what I prefer and what I do are reaching a bit of an impasse. I want to be subtle, and I want to not reveal intentions, but I was aware early on that my strategy would not work. People were confused about Milo, and Taylor, and even Morgan, for a long time in certain intervals. There are still some people confused about Milo’s intentions to this day, as if they’re owed an explanation.

I’m reminded of how David Lynch was asked by so many viewers and critics what his creative choices “meant” in season one of Twin Peaks despite him insisting that the interpretation was up to the viewer. (Some may see this as a cop-out, but since so much of the theming of Twin Peaks is based on dreams, and dreams are very obscure and up to interpretation, I like it.) So the story goes, he included a bunch of intentionally confusing imagery in season two of twin peaks along with his planned surrealist imagery, as if to tell his whiniest critics, “Hey look, more confusing stuff, try to figure out the true meaning of that, assholes.”

The more perceptive of you may realize where I’m going with this. At the beginning of Chapter Thirteen, Morgan and Quinn have a fight about Quinn being obsessive about Milo’s intentions. I make very few conscious choices in my writing – most of the time I imagine the whole story and write down what I see, both in my “plan” and also what happens in the moment while writing – but this fight was a deliberate choice on my part. When I published chapters 11 and 12 of Mutual Benefits, there were a lot of comments demanding a full explanation of Milo’s exact intent, with everything from “I can’t wait for the story to explain why Milo is doing this” to “the mark of a bad author is not adequately conveying his characters’ motivations.” Jeez. That bad, huh?

Maybe I deserve some blame for making it too obscure or writing too confusingly in a way I couldn’t see from my end. At the same time, I have to believe (and hope) that the majority of my readers are old enough to have made it through high school. Surely they’ve met people that like to start drama. Do dramatic high schoolers that like to start shit need a four-act-play’s worth of backstory to stir up emotion in real life? No, of course not. We’ve just gotten so used to the conventions of stories that they’re disarming when cast away. (Again, possibly coupled with the fact that a few scenes were laid out too confusingly by me.)

The scene actually worked since I did want Morgan and Quinn to address the parts of their relationship that didn’t work, but that scene is specifically me wanting to call out certain readers on being too obsessive with everything making sense. According to some, Milo needed to make sense, he needed to have a clear one-dimensional reason for disliking the situation between Taylor and Quinn. Evidently, Taylor cheating on her partner with Quinn is not enough.

I didn’t want to have some big scene where Milo sighs and goes “Quinn, let me tell you the thing about my past that will make this all make sense to you,” because that’s telling versus showing at its worst. I gave readers the basic parts of the puzzle. Milo knows Taylor was cheating with Quinn. Milo is making a noticeable effort to make sure Taylor and Quinn face consequences for that. The rest is up to you to deduce, or even invent. If you want Milo to have a motivation, the foundation is there. Once you read the book and he’s in your head, he’s your character to have fun with. Go nuts.

Here’s the problem. I still did a lot of telling at its worst in this chapter. A part of me feels guilty for having the conversation where Quinn says to Taylor her own motivations about fearing Morgan will leave her. I don’t have enough solid experience with subtext that I could have done it any other way and still be as clear, but… it still bothers me. I need to get better at being subtle. Not everyone is going to say “The reason I did X is because of this elaborate reason and backstory. Here are the exact motivations I’m feeling with no errors, no lying, and no mistakes.” It’s not what happens in real life. The fact I still do it still bothers me.

There are smaller areas too where I’m telling too much, like how I explicitly say through Quinn that Lexi has a thing for Doug. I could have been so much more graceful than that. I could have had Quinn glance at the way Lexi talked to Doug then “knowingly smirk.” That would have been better. It was a small detail, but still a good example of what I can do to improve my writing.

So let’s hope I get out of that bad habit. I look forward to editing the story once all of the chapters are out, but given the state of my job and the world, that’s sadly a fair bit away. I’ll talk to you all next week.

4 thoughts on “When to Tell

  1. Writing a story for readers is like setting a room with people and some drama plot, with readers looking there with restricted sight. The sight can it as good as semitransparent mirror or as bad as very tiny key hole.

    For the former there is no room for imagination, it is like a documentary. For the latter, randomly seen fractions of actions do not make any sense and no reasons are there to be seen.

    Now, the writer, balance between both.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your stories are from one character’s perspective. A single character doesn’t know everyone’s intentions, so what’s the problem?

    Sometimes, intentions don’t matter. You tow the line well in your writing

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As said before… you’re painting on a canvas.
    A majority of interpretation is not scientific, nor perfect, nor can be for all readers.
    Been following you for years.
    Please, always continue to grow.
    A pat on the back.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with Homefiremusic, at least to a certain extent. Part of the point of fiction generally, is to make some kind of sense to a confusing world. You (Bashful) are worried that you are either making too much sense – spelling everything out – or too little, leaving us completely in the dark.

    Fair enough: I’m sure Jane Austen had the same doubts in her novels, and everyone who writes ‘character’ novels since. Even ‘action’ novels have to have some motivation for the actions they describe, though Raymond Chandler (I think it was) did famously say that when he got stuck he had someone walk in the room with a gun! Porn, traditionally, needed no motivation other than basic sex (or sex+power) urges but ‘erotic fiction’ such as yours tries to recapture the rules and constraints of ‘mainstream’ novels, making a much more enjoyable product for many of us.

    I, like most of your readers I’m sure, think you mostly get it right – otherwise we wouldn’t keep coming back. I was one of those puzzled by Milo – to be honest I haven’t actually met someone who is as much of a ‘stirrer’ as him, but then, I was at school 50 years ago: sex had barely been invented then! But if it becomes clear he’s just a not-very-pleasant guy, at least from Quinn’s angle – fair enough. There were enough people at my school (yes, even 50 years ago) whom I both disliked and didn’t understand.

    What is perhaps harder to show (for almost everyone who’s ever written a novel) is just why an ‘In Girl’ like Morgan should fall for Quinn. Taylor is easy to understand as there seems to be something almost transactional in her mind: Quinn’s helping her through his tutoring so she can help him through her sexual knowledge and desirability (that sounds cruder than I’m sure she thinks it is). But (back to Morgan) there’s plenty of precedent for unpredictable and inexplicable romance so it just has to be believable but not fully explained. Come to that what could explain it? Morgan being treated well in the past by someone who was clever but not visibly emotional? No, it’s an unnecessary question.

    Anyway, enough rambling. I really appreciate you exposing your writing process, and even problems, like this: it makes the whole package even more enjoyable. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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