Saturday, 14 December 2013

Show don't tell

Show don't tell, how many times have you heard that axiom? If you're a fan of cinema you probably relate it to the mistaken notion that it refers to rendering scenes on the screen rather describing them in dialogue, "Look, the tidal wave is about to engulf the city! Gosh I wonder how much that would cost to recreate with special effects?".  No it has a rather more profound bearing on narrative technique than that and it involves two very old concepts, so old in fact that they pre-date concerns over special effects budgets by a couple of millennia, These would be: diegesis and mimesis, unfortuantly there's nothing like impressive sounding Greek or Latin  vocabulary to spawn misapplication of terms, borne from their association with a particular context. Diegetic sound, may be a term applied as short hand in cinematic jargon but it's rather inaccurate and somewhat ironic considering its true meaning. A diegenic approach to narrative can be summarised as the: once upon a time approach, it's relaying a narrative through the means of recounting events, "Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pale of water..." that kind of thing. mimesis is relaying a narrative through mimicking the events of that narrative, acting them out, like in a play or film. The obvious implication is that mimesis is exclusive to dramatic forms and diegesis likewise to literal forms, yeah, obvious but mistaken again.

Mimesis is essential to contemporary narrative forms including literature, I commonly identify it as being manifest on two levels, the first regards how certain events are relayed, consider the two examples below.

Jake pulled out his 45 automatic and fired two shots, Emile fell to the floor like a sack of spuds

Jake's heart pounded so fiercely, he could feel his pulse throbbing as he clasped the handle of his 45 automatic. The impulse of the recoil from his two shots jolted the frame of his weapon violently and he felt the knurled handle rasp the heel of his palm as the noise of his shots sang in his head. He heard a stifled mew and then a crump, as if a sack spuds had fallen from shoulder height, when the smoke cleared he saw Emile's body laying motionless on the floor.

The first example is self explanatory but I think we can see it falls into the, once upon a time technique of relaying events. The second one doesn't describe the events as explicitly, events are implied rather than recounted but it includes more detail in an effort to evoke an image inside a reader's head, in other words to mimic that scene in the reader's imagination, mimesis!

The second form that mimesis manifests itself in narrative, is way that a the broader elements of narrative, that is: plot, unfold or the method used to reveal them to a reader or audience. This is where, show don't tell comes in. If you have a character that undergoes some change, be it a positive epiphany or some negative metamorphosis of a virtuous person into a malicious one, you don't leave it with someone uttering: "Oh yeah, Darth used to be a nice guy then he fell into a volcano".  No what you do is, you show that story, because as human beings, what we're told means almost nothing, what we learn means everything.

Right, is that clear? probably not I imagine, so I'm going to include a clip from a rather excellent animated tv show that epitomises this concept rather succinctly, not least because, show don't tell is its central theme. Or rather link to that clip because it's one where embedding has been disabled.

No comments:

Post a Comment