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Should I Show or Tell

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Malise, Apr 20, 2021.


Imply or Show Graphic Subject Matter?

  1. Imply

    4 vote(s)
  2. Show

    0 vote(s)
  1. Malise

    Malise Scribe

    Hiya there.

    I'm currently in the process of writing a story about a team of city bureaucrats trying to systematically lower the crime rates in an ethnically diverse inner-city urban fantasy setting after one of the bureaucrats turned the area into a special economic zone with the intention of offering protection to informal businesses (hawkers, bootleg sellers, etc.) but with the consequence of allowing black markets to thrive there as well. If you read my response in Wondering Sword's Martial Arts thread, it's going to be a rewrite of the story I mentioned in there.

    The central theme of the story is "The Broken Ladder" or the idea that the quickest way for impoverished immigrant groups to assimilate into mainstream society is for the first generation to earn wealth by literally any means possible, so that the second generation can use that wealth to climb up the social ladder and become 'clean professionals'. Then hopefully the third generation would live a life indistinguishable from another 'regular middle-class citizen' and have the privilege of looking down at the new immigrant groups currently at the bottom of the broken ladder up.

    If I'm discussing "The Broken Ladder", that means I'm also going to have to discuss topics such as illegal immigration, labor trafficking, intergenerational trauma, xenophobia, minority-on-minority violence, the cycle of poverty, self-hatred of one's own culture ect. Most of the plot events relating to those themes are all based on stuff that I've either personally seen or heard about in LA, where the "Broken Ladder" is definitely a reality for some people. However, at the same time, I plan to make my story my usual character-focused drama-comedy, so I have to make space for some levity.

    The content of the graphic subject matter I plan to write about will not be changed to make the story tone's "lighter", however, I still don't know how I should present it. Would it be more tasteful to take the PG-13 route and either 'imply' or tell than directly show graphic material to avoid gratuitousness, or would it be more appropriate for me to present the subject matter as raw as it is and not sugarcoat anything?

    To give you an example, I have a character who's in a marriage of convenience for the sake of his child (that he tries his best not to resent) after being abandoned by his former crime boss's daughter whom he was forced to marry. In my current story notes it's going to be implied that this character was underaged when he had his kid, that the "traditional theater" that he used to work in was really just a front for a brothel and mail order bride business, and he was purposely kept illiterate so he couldn't escape. These backstory points were planned only to be mentioned in the dialog and offhand narration. However, at the same time, I'm thinking of rewriting those same notes into flashbacks, which means I have to depict the heavy abuse that most people are already imagining. I really don't know which one would be better.
  2. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    I'm not going to vote because I think that both approaches have their place. I'm 1/3 of a writing team, our drafter, and we write some fairly dark urban fantasy, so lots of blood, lots of gallows humor, lots of trauma. That being said, I won't always describe brutality blow by blow. Sometimes you need to give the reader just a little bit of a breather and slow things down, blur the lens somewhat to keep from just drenching the reader in violence.

    For example, a passage from our second book, Ties of Blood and Bone...

    Bastian looked to where the two wizard women were—had been—and his eyes widened with panic. “They were just here! I bound them well. I’ll find them for you, I swear it.”

    Magnus put his foot on Bastian’s chest. “No. You’ve failed me for the last time.” He looked to Arariel. “My lord, let me call a Legion Commander. We’ll find this girl before your deadline.”

    Arariel raised an eyebrow. “You’ll need quite a sacrifice to bring them here and you seem to be a victim short.”

    The look Magnus cast on Bastian was devoid of pity. “I see one that should suffice.”

    Bastian paled and struggled to get away. “Magnus, no! I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me. I’ve been your partner in this. I killed my first Mulcahy when I was twelve! You can’t!”

    Magnus ground his heel into Bastian’s sternum, causing a small pain noise. “I have given everything to this geas. I gave my daughter to Arariel. My son betrayed me and will be dead soon enough. I have nothing left. What makes you think I won’t use you?”

    Bastian’s eyes filled with tears. “Magnus… Master… please! I love you.”

    Magnus turned to Arariel. “My lord, may I present your sacrifice?”

    Arariel’s grin was a thing of menace and teeth and laughter. “Sure. Why not?”

    Magnus swung his cane. “Goodbye, Bastian.”

    Bastian screamed as the steel head of the cane struck his face.

    Arariel was a demon of blood and pain, and so while a simple offering of a soul would technically suffice, he gained more power—and more pleasure—from offerings that ended with bloody, agonizing, death. The more violent the death, the more power generated, and Magnus had a particular Legion Commander in mind.

    One that required quite a bit of power to summon, indeed.

    By the time Bastian was finally dead the Demon Gate fairly hummed with power, and Magnus could again see the blasted hellscape that was the native realm of both demons and angels. He paused for a moment to contemplate what they had done to their own home in their unending war and was grateful that they could not pass so easily to the Mortal Realm. It was enough that the strongest of them chose to come here and use mortal souls as some sort of point system in their conflict. The demons wanted to collect them for their personal power, and angels sought to set them free.
  3. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

    You're going to have to be really mindful of the tone of your writing and the piece in general. You see some pretty tough stuff on screen/page in Game of Thrones because that's the tone of the book, but you're only told vaguely of the torture Neville's parents went through in Harry Potter. This is something that you're going to have to use your best judgement to determine (and maybe have reader feedback, too). Some things like "illegal" immigration and systematic racism are going to be things that the average (American) reader is going to know about in some capacity, but you'll have to show these things in some ways. Like we all know that people enter the country without the proper documentation or overstay visas, but we don't know what it's like to get a job without a visa, or how you acquire services without documentation. I just got my first covid shot and the website said "you don't NEED government ID to get it, but you can show these things instead" and it showed a list of various types of visas/immigration court orders that were acceptable, way more things than I'd ever think existed. A different page mentioned that you could use something like a library card to just prove that you had a name (but obviously you cannot use a library card to open a bank account or be hired for a job). You could show us how this process would be really difficult (a scene of a character at a bank), or tell us very quickly ("She's struggling to get a job because she has no documentation"). Again, you'll have to use your best judgement here.

    Also a lot of back story stuff doesn't have to explicitly be on the page if it doesn't really matter. The character you gave as an example, is he a main character? You can show him being illiterate pretty easily (he refuses to read something because he doesn't want to admit that he can't). You can imply that the theater is a front for other things. Also if you don't explicitly tell us what it is, then the reader can fill in the blanks with whatever Horrible Stuff they can come up with, which can be very powerful.
  4. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

    What A. E. Lowan said. Many of the 'How to Write' books either get this wrong or don't fully explain it. Both are required, but beyond that I've come to believe is Authorial Voice, Narrative Voice...is really what is going to carry your writing. You have to invite/suck the reader in with a strong authoritative (notice how that word includes the word 'author' LOL!) voice. Get the reader to suspend disbelief and all is fair game!
  5. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    As A E Lowan says, both approaches have their place in writing. Personally I prefer to imply really unpleasant things rather than describe them, because as Chasejxyz says our readers are quite capable of coming up with enough horrible details to satisfy any blood lust they may have. You said that you're intending to have a character focus, and provided your characterisation and plot are good enough I don't think you'll need to get into gory details. If you haven't already done so I'd suggest reading some of the Continental Op stories by Dashiell Hammett. Like you, he wrote stories based on what he'd seen, done and heard. What he didn't do was include gory details, instead its his characterisation of the Op and the other protagonists/antagonists which carry the stories.
  6. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    On the topic of gory details, I agree you don't need them. Like in the section I shared from our second book, you don't need to go into detail about every grunt, scream, and squish. One of the most disturbing and horrifying torture scenes I've ever read was described with a single sentence:

    "He did things to me and made my mother watch, and then he did things to her and made me watch."

    I don't remember what book this is from, but yikes! It's perfect and I love it.
  7. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    It took me about an hour to calm down enough to write this reply after reading that - because I've seen the results of exactly that in real life. (No, its not your fault for reminding me, its part of my PTSD.)

    I think the best implication of torture I ever read was in a book by Gavin Lyall. Three characters, talking, and one asks another if they'd been captured by the Gestapo. The person answers yes. Then the third guys asks the first guy how his legs are, and gets the grim answer "I'm walking."

    For one of my novels I had one character see another character's bare back - and all the burn and whip scars on it. I didn't describe the scars...
  8. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    I'm so sorry, hon. I have PTSD, too. I know how much it sucks.
  9. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

    Sounds like the main thing you need to show is the effect on the characters, with just enough explanation of what happened in the past for it to make sense. One sentence can be enough, as the above examples demonstrate.

    I have a draft of a scene where a character says, "My father did some things no one, least of all a parent, should ever do to a child." And then refuses to say anything more about it. What does that say about the character? Or the father (who is dead before the story begins)?
  10. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    In many cases I think less is more when it comes to both sex and torture/violence scenes.

    I tend to start graphic and leave the rest to the imagination. I don’t tend to summarize, either, the abrupt end leaves the reader to think and imagine. The implication with the technique I use is to say this is bad, and it’s just the beginning. For instance... And this isn’t pleasant, so stop here if you like... but it’s lighter than going into some massive detail I’d rather not write.

    The inquisitor bore a pursed-lip smile. “Disappointed? Nah, I thank you. Normally, I’d need listen through your screams, pause and ask questions, wait for your confession. This way, we skip them pleasantries, mmm.”

    A fist clubbed Darêun, re-breaking his cheek. He cried out as he collapsed into moldy, reeking straw, squirmed as the man’s heel drove his face into the floor, dislocating his jaw. Pliers seized his right thumb and wrenched it from its socket, and for the first time since a child, piss warmed the priest’s leg.
  11. Malise

    Malise Scribe

    Alrighty thanks for the advice, fellow writers. Sorry for not sending feedback right away, my notifications are kinda wack.

    I'll take the middle route but lean more towards imply. So poor Arsene (the name of the character that I mentioned in the bottom paragraph), will have to deal with getting some of his bones crunched on screen but I'm not showing the audience how he made his baby.

    I originally forgot to add to the original that I was planning to publish the novel in Wattpad, as it's the only mainstream self-publishing app where the audience is mainly in the 13-15 category. So, I got worried about my story potentially getting slapped with a mature sticker, which would greatly reduce my potential reader base.

    However, as I wrote more of my novel draft, I realize its genre is actually New Adult since all my important characters are over the age of 20, something that was not planned in the original outline. So, I guess I can do whatever now because I don't have to worry about fitting YA conventions to push the story as a YA story anymore. Ah well, that's the magic of a first draft.

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