Sometimes when I’m reading a book, a scene takes me right out of the story because I don’t “buy” it. It’s not that what is taking place is completely implausible, it’s that the writer has not convinced me of its truth. I have faith that a skilled writer can make a reader believe anything. The catch? There must be solid reasons the characters do what they do (aka character motivation), and I blogged about that in this post Reading for Writers 101: Character Motivation. However, the issue I encountered in the book I recently read is not so much a lack of character motivation, but rather a lack of factual actions to back up that motivation.
The protagonist (let’s call her Jane) finds out that another character (Diana) did something that endangered others. Jane reacts by wondering if Diana is a psychopath for putting those people in danger. However, Diana has never displayed psychopathic tendencies like a lack of empathy or self-centredness. Instead, Diana’s behaviour indicates she is naive and sheltered and does not understand the consequences of what she did. So when Jane has doubts about Diana, instead of me feeling the same concern Jane does and becoming worried for Jane’s safety, I became annoyed at Jane for having these baseless thoughts, which are later proved to be exactly that – baseless.
This is what I call a “disconnect between show and tell.” The author showed us a character that is clearly not a heartless psychopath, but then had the protagonist tell us that the character might be a psychopath to cast doubt. And I didn’t buy it. Why not?
Because actions speak louder than words. How characters act is more powerful than what other characters say about them. Think of it like evidence in a court case. What is more likely to convince a jury of guilt: a witness saying he saw the suspect shoot the gun, or video footage of the suspect shooting the gun? Obviously the latter. Showing is always more convincing than telling.
But what if a writer purposely wants a disconnect between what’s shown and what’s told? Okay, but for that to work, this needs to happen: acknowledge the disconnect. Either the protagonist or another character has to recognize that their opinion is not based on factual actions; it’s just a hunch. Own it. Readers accept hunches; they do not accept leaps of logic based on nothing.
However, if the disconnect between what’s shown and what’s told is unintentional, fix it by adding actions that support the tell. What behaviour could Diana exhibit that justifies Jane’s suspicions? Of course, the key to this is to show BOTH sides – naive Diana and unempathetic Diana – so Jane (and the reader) are not sure which behaviour is Diana’s true nature, and which might be an act.
After actions are added to support the tell, the writer might realize they can remove the telling completely because the actions themselves establish the doubt. Simply have the protagonist remember the action that makes them doubt the character, and the reader will fill in the blanks. Huzzah!
In conclusion, resolving a disconnect between what’s shown and what’s told often comes down to supporting the tell with action and then removing the tell. And this reinforces the old adage “show don’t tell.” Though not a hard-and-fast rule, there’s a reason this advice is given so much — it can solve a lot of story problems!