Some thoughts about “Show, don’t tell.”

I love Warren Ellis. I would throw myself down and sacrifice my individual to become one with Warren Ellis, extending his life with my own. Not really, but I would think about it for a couple seconds. I really just love Warren Ellis. When I first began my quest to become a writer, my goal was basically “be fatter, American Warren Ellis.” There are a lot worse fates honestly, but my goals have changed.

However, my love and respect for Mr. Ellis has not changed. In the latest installment of his “ORBITAL OPERATIONS” newsletter, he shared something that hit home in a big way. Some insight into his process and thoughts on writing a comic book script:

I am out of petrol. But, before I go, a thought on writing in comics:

1391424-warren_ellis_1Some people will quote a rule at you, often with a snotty air: “show, don’t tell.” They will tell you that it is bad storytelling if, for instance, the art doesn’t tell the story independently of the text, or, classically, if you are telling the reader something instead of showing it to them.

This is crap.

Bruce Wagner’s WILD PALMS graphic novel, wonderfully illustrated by the late Julian Allen, frequently “tells” you in dialogue what you are seeing in the art. So went the criticism. Except, of course, that it wasn’t. What it was frequently doing was striking subtle friction off the proximity of writing to art – there was additional information in the art, and the blankness of the text had its own subtextual payload.

Anyone who cannot imagine genuine storytelling reasons for telling something instead of showing something is an idiot. Anyone who can’t imagine the art and the text telling you *two different stories* is an idiot.

Try not to describe the illustration in the dialogue or caption unless there’s a very specific reason for it. That’s it. Anything else is fair game.

Let me preface the rest of this post by saying while I am a “professional” writer that has been paid to write content, I have never had fiction published. So disclaimer. Take all I’m about to say with a grain of salt, because it’s not the words of a seasoned vet like Warren Ellis.

Alright, onto my thoughts: The reason this hit home for me is that it’s an issue I’m currently dealing with on a project. I am working on a Future Shock script to submit to 2000 AD. In case you’re not familiar, a Future Shock is a short (typically 4 pages) comic story with a twist ending. It has to be an original story that features original characters.

Now a lot of people might think “Four pages? That’s cake. I’m sure a good writer could crap that out in a day.” Maybe, but if we’re being honest, trying to tell a complete narrative in four pages is actually harder than 30 or even 180 pages. You have to keep the story lean, waste no motion, and be very clear in what you’re trying to express to the reader. You have to establish who your characters are, what they’re trying to do, why they’re trying to do it, and what happens if they fail… all in four pages. Not to mention you then have to tell the story.

Still think four pages is easy? When I first started writing fiction, I did a lot of “Flash Fiction” short stories. It’s an exercise of which a lot of writers participate. Many, myself included, claim it’s a good way to learn how to tell the parts of a story quickly and effectively. This in mind, it’s not unthinkable that I was coming to the very conclusion that Mr. Ellis was preparing for his newsletter at almost the same exact time.

The problem I was running into is that while I was plotting out and planning this four page story, I realized that my ideas were very text narrative heavy. Of course the first thing that popped into my head is the old “Show, don’t tell…” I was torturing myself over how to convey this plot point, or this aspect of the character, etc. without words. I actually started entertaining the idea of having no text, only art panels. Then it hit me… what’s wrong with telling the audience what’s going on? I have four pages. Conservation of page length is the most important part of this project. It doesn’t matter if I write out the perfect script with no dialog and only on page action, if it’s five pages in length I’ve already failed the exercise.

Now I’ll just cut to the realization because this post is already getting a little wordy. Comic books are a medium that combine art and word. If you want just art or just words, there are other things you can consume. While there is a moderately justified attitude that writers are a dime a dozen, that doesn’t diminish the importance of good writing in comics. “Show, don’t tell…” illustrates a mindset where the text being written is secondary, or even worse, a redundancy for the art on the page. That’s not right. If that’s the case, we’re into the aforementioned art book you can buy at any artist alley at basically any comic convention. And going the other way, words that don’t benefit from art are just illustrated novels.

Comic books are symbiotic relationship between art and words. To diminish the role of writer, artists, and editors diminishes the medium itself. Full stop. If you have a problem with that concept, move on. Even if you are successful, odds are you’re going to be an insufferable pain to work with and will become “that guy/gal” because you think you’re contributions to the project are more important than anyone else’s. That’s a terrible attitude to have going into a collaborative effort.

Let’s get back on track to what I’m working on currently though, as that’s kind of my point here. After reflecting on my storytelling problem, and some uncannily timed advice from Mr. Ellis, I realized that my own thinking had been skewed. That my perceived importance of artwork over writing was stopping me from seeing the true solution in a situation like this. Writing and art have to work together. In these four pages I will show as much as I can, and then tell the rest. The true enemy in this situation is redundancy, which is what I really think the spirit of “Show, don’t tell” rule is set to convey.

I’ll keep you guys up to date on this project as anything develops. 2000 AD submissions don’t open again till September, so while I’ll likely get this completed over the next week or so it’s going to be awhile before I can actually submit it and even longer till I get my rejection reply.

So there you have it. Some insight from myself and more notably, Warren Ellis. Definitely listen to him. Maybe lightly consider my contribution to the discussion…