Show Not Tell: The Story of Slog© Will Greenway 2000
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.
Slog is annoying.
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.
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.