Show Not Tell — The Story of Slog
This is the story of Slog. Everybody knows slog, he hangs out in newspaper articles and text books, he’s like that gum stuck to your shoe and twice as sticky. He’s the nuisance that writers can’t live without but often overdose on. Slog is the narrative killer, the tension abator, that big blot in the road that wakes you up on a dark night. Slog has another name, one you might have heard of… exposition.
You’ve all heard the writing paradigm: Show Not Tell. Narrative is showing. Telling is Slog (exposition). Slog isn’t exactly the enemy, but he isn’t your ally either. Slog is like mud on a battlefield. Mud makes footing treacherous, it slows you down and saps your strength. If there’s a whole lot of it, you wallow and drown.
You don’t think drowning is a good thing, do you? Why would you want your prose to drown? You do like your prose don’t you? Do you want it submerged in sticky dirty brown muck gasping for precious air?
Despite that horrible image, I find many writers embrace Slog. They think he’s just the bee’s knees. They’ve been lulled by Slog’s “do it the easy way” approach to story telling. So, those of you who think Slog is just okay, let’s out him a little.
Slog is a lazy blabbermouth who goes on and on about sunsets and town history and just won’t stop when the other person is politely tapping their toe and looking at their watch. Slog is a backward thinking bloat who takes up space and just doesn’t ever seem to move forward. Slog is the kind who packs a months worth of clothes for an overnight stay, and needs three porters to carry in his bags.
Do you want Slog the annoying bloat to relate your story to the reader? I hope you don’t have to think about this.
Slog has his uses. The one thing he’s good for is filling up space. He’s good for filling cracks and doing odd tasks that more significant prose can’t be bothered with. Sometimes things are simple and ‘the next day’ is just ‘the next day’.
Slog is sneaky though. He gets in your ear and whispers sweet nothings to you, he strokes your ego and caters to your whim. Slog is the dark side. “All that research…” Slog whispers. “You did all that research. You can’t let it go to waste, no, no, no. It’s so INTERESTING. Just stick it in verbatim over there, put a few flowers on it and nobody will notice…”
Hear the that sound? That’s the desperate wail of prose drowning in research. It’s pitiful really. The poor story desperately trying to claw its way out of a travel and history guide.
Slog would have you think that research is for the reader. I would have you think that research is for YOU. Research should serve the story by providing authentic details used to ground the material and provide texture.
Another thing about Slog. Slog is a frustrated philosophical poet with a perchance for scenery and introspective non-contextual musings. Slog can stare at a sunset all day (if indeed a sunset could last all day). He likes looking at the moon, sea scapes, snow-capped mountain tops, and majestic forests too. In fact, most of what Slog does is stare at things–a LOT. He never appears to go anywhere though. He just looks at things, waxing eloquent, holding onto your arm and forcing you to admire with him the many bountiful wonderments of his fabulous vocabulary. It’s pleasant enough– for a couple seconds. Slog is so clingy and needy though, he just has to show off his vast knowledge of animus and history and blah blah-blah blah blah-blah-blah…
*snurk?* Oh yeah, where was I… I must have fallen asleep… right… Slog… scenery. Scenery is beautiful, wonderful, it’s a lot of things–including BORING. The most beautiful photograph in the world is only so entertaining. Scenery presented Slog’s way is a flat presentation about as enjoyable as a science lecture. Yes, you can hire some famous person to ENUNCIATE and PROJECT and make it sound pretty and flowery but it’s really still just Slog wearing a bad hair-piece and platform soles trying to be the center of attention.
Slog is selfish. Slog doesn’t share the stage. Slog doesn’t care about the audience’s feelings. He just wants to pour out what he thinks and be damned if there can be any outside participation or interaction.
Put simply, Slog is self-centered bore. He strikes up great conversations, and is good for a few interesting tid-bits of information, but you can’t shut the guy up! Why so many writers invite him to their parties is beyond me. I don’t get it. It must be that Slog works cheap. He’ll write your story for you if you let him. It won’t be very good, but it’ll get done.
For the sake of your prose, chain Slog in the back room. Trot him out to fill in the CRACKS, not tell the story. Slog is a means to an end, a non-fiction short-cut resorted to when other story mechanisms are too cumbersome to employ.
Slog’s big lure, the time he strikes, is when you are at a creative lull. You have what you THINK are important story details that you BELIEVE the reader must have in order to understand what’s going on. That’s when Slog grabs you in a very sensitive place and squeezes. The problem is you’ve just NOW come to realization that you need the information. Slog knows that you’re essentially a lazy person (aren’t we all) and gives you an easy way out. “Use me,” he croons. “Infoooodump… it’s sooo easy. Just have a character tell another character stuff they already know… nobody will notice… really.”
Okay, roll your eyes. You’ve seen it. You too have fallen pray to Slog’s lazy persuasions… admit it! Confess! You’re allowing Slog to play dress-up and disguise himself as dialogue. Unfortunately, Slog is a fat slow-moving lug and when he imitates speech it sounds like that snooze-inducing science professor you had back in junior high.
Don’t feel bad, some very big name authors get suckered by Slog. Some would say that some of them have been possessed by the spirit of Slog and need an exorcism REAL BAD.
Be on your guard because Slog fancies himself a master of disguise and if you’re lazy and not paying attention he’ll try and play himself off as lot of things. He’ll describe pain for you– it hurts! He’ll describe love for you– she was in love. He’ll even do passive voice for you… oh, will he ever… he LOVES passive voice… and cliches… and redundancy… and passive redundant cliches– it was a dark and stormy night. Slog’s little bits of mischief are unending.
There’s only one solution–an axe.
A great big one.
The next time Slog tries to creep out of the closet and write your story–give him a whack– or better, TEN whacks. Be careful when whacking Slog, he regenerates. Anything you lop off can grow back in a different place, so you must be ever diligent. Slog doesn’t feel pain and he’s rather relentless in his lazy attempts to take over your story. He strikes late at night when your resistance is low and your muse is looking the other way. If you really must handle Slog, the safest way is to throw him in a blender and spread him like peanut butter. Just remember how sticky it is… it sticks to everything. Even in creamy form Slog gums up the narrative, so you must spread it thin… a paint roller is good. A nice thin layer of Slog to give things color without making any lumps.
So, you want to combat Slog but for some reason you’re having problems spotting him. In our quest to limit Slog’s infestation here’s a few pointers on spotting the sticky beastie.
- Look at the physical page (Naked Slog or Slog porn)
When your script is printed out, or on the screen, how many lines go by without an indentation. If a whole page goes by without an indentation, it’s strong sign of *something*. My old writing instructor used to say “paragraph arbitrarily”. I don’t say that. I say “structure in smaller bites”. Big blocks of text are intimidating anyways. Why IS that block so big? Is Slog hiding in there? I can describe some pretty complex scenes in half a page. One of the reasons I can do that is I hit the key details in the introductory setting piece and then add filler details through the course of the scene.
- Is there dialogue on that page (Transitive Slog)
How long has it been since there was a line of dialogue? Are we in a character’s head? Is there only one character on stage? Single character scenes are one of the places Slog LOVES to hide. It’s when characters introspect and fumble around trying to look busy. The key thing to note is ‘trying’. I find MANY writers have difficulty making these scenes sustain. Largely it’s because Slog gets in their ear and convinces them that there’s this HUGE infodump that simply MUST occur now when the scene is ALREADY slow. No. Nope. Negative. Character driven solo scenes are for perspective, re-scoping the character’s needs and desires, and adjusting relationship positioning. Plot driven character solos are the character’s duel with the story problem, we should be forging upstream not having some angsty flashback or mucky introspection. So, then where do you put such things… ummm, good question, let me get back to you on that…
Kidding aside, those big cumbersome blocks of back story often need to be boiled down to small bite-sized pieces and spread throughout the narrative. Their placement should be thought out carefully and they should be made active if possible. Many writers try to do back story as blocks of telling, when in reality they should be done as an actual scene with flashback transitions. Call me strange, but I have 5 published novels and only one of them has a flashback in it, and that one time is done as a prologue. So, if you structure right, you don’t need it.
The dialogue discrepancy can sometimes happen when there’s multiple characters in the scene, but the writer is trying to bridge between major focal points in the story. A typical scenario where this occurs is when the characters simply have to get from point A to point B. However, the writer doesn’t want to minimize the trek even though nothing significant to the plot happens in the intervening time. This is called a transition scene. In atomic writing, this task called a “vector bridge”, where the whole goal of the scene is to support and condense things that happen during a time gap. So, why do we have some instinct to shove something clumsy into that space? Because some character and plot developments ripen over time, weeks, months, possibly even years. The reason you instinctively want to inject something into the time frame is that usually characters will be different coming out from when they went in. However, the reason many writers have problems is they don’t realize that’s what they should be focusing on. The significant thing to concentrate on is the pinning points that graph the changes in character (or the story problem) that occur during the gap.
- Who’s telling the story? (Slog as narrator)
Now, the first two ways to locate Slog are simply visual things on the page. Now, we get down to finding Slog when he’s disguised himself as other writing tasks. The main way Slog sneaks in is you THINK you’re doing a description in narrative.
Look closer, is there a character name in there anywhere? Are there any environmental cues, or other feedback that might be relevant to a character viewing the scene. If there isn’t– why? Did you deliberately avoid setting the scene from a character’s viewpoint? One would hope you have a sound technical reason for doing so. If you can’t make a STRONG argument for WHY you must do a flat scene setting… I would reconsider. If you THINK there’s no way to set the scene through a character’s eyes– you aren’t thinking hard enough. In all of my years writing, people I’ve worked with have only stumped me TWICE on this. If you have a scene that only Slog can set, let me know about it.
- Back story / support in dialogue (Slog as dialogue)
Is there a huge block of dialogue that looks like a paragraph? What’s the content? Does the character being told the information already know this information either contextually or by some aspect of their own back story. The biggest perpetrators of this crime are characters reciting commonly known world or character history.
Now, sometimes a piece of history is lesser known, but the thing that always gets me is how a character who supposedly “knows” this information suddenly becomes a professor. Dialect, character ticks, and delivery are thrown away as the poor slob of a character spews out this huge chunk of historical data.
Now, this is just wrong. One, it’s NOT in character. Two, it’s sometimes (and this is really egregious) a character who wouldn’t know it but has been “elected” for the task simply for convenience sake. Three, more times than not the information isn’t even vital to the story!
All I have to say is: What did Slog do to your brain for such a dysfunction to occur? I know what it was. You heard the show not tell rule and thought you could sneak by if a character told it. Slog tricked you. Bzzzt. You get the big red buzzer.
Trust me, if the information is truly critical, it can be SEEDED in when you do your backwards story review. You DO know about this, right? Here’s a quick 1-2-3 on reverse seeding. You don’t worry about any back story… NONE. Just tell the story like the reader knows EVERYTHING. Just run it all straight. When the whole thing is down on paper review the story BACKWARD. When you hit a critical section that didn’t get set up during the course of the forward telling, find a place to “seed” it in. Because the story is already written you can look at action spots and other narrative balance issues and either fit the detail in or create a scene (if one is necessary) to foreshadow. If the foreshadowing itself needs setup (they sometimes do) you go further back and seed that (that’s called recursive seeding). Once you’ve followed a setup thread as far as it unwinds you go back to where it started and continue backward to the next critical scene that needs setup and repeat the process. This mechanism alleviates a LOT of Slog’s influence on your story because you have a totally different perspective and mindset because at this point you have your editor’s hat on and not your writing hat.
- Introspective Slog (Slog as character / non-sequitur Slog)
Sometimes Slog can emulate a character PERFECTLY. All of the little thought mannerisms and dialect. However, the words flowing out of the stream of consciousness are on topics and about things that are strangely out of place. What’s going on here?
The character is channeling the writer, that’s what happening.
There’s something you’re just dying to inject into the story, and to be clever, you take control of some poor hapless character make junk come whistling out of their brains.
Have some respect, would you? These people are trying to THINK! It’s bad enough you torture them in the plot. Do you have to invade their minds too? I’m sure you think it’s awfully clever but give your characters, and your readers, a break. Find another way to demonstrate that cleverness.
Hopefully now that you’ve seen Slog, he’ll have less power over you. Write with a critical ear turned toward Slog’s mascinations and be a shower and not a teller.