Isn’t that a confusing statement? Ha! You bet it’s confusing. In writing, both non-fiction and fiction, the difference between the two is the difference from a description of reality versus a description of a false reality.
Even in an epic fantasy, with its own made-up rules and speculation, the false attribution of the How is a sneaky and insidious problem which can turn a novel into mediocre ho-hum.
So what is the difference?
I’m going to use crime fiction because I sometimes pick up a book that tries to be accurate, like a police procedural, but in actuality, contain many inaccuracies. Which is a nice way of saying “bullshit.” Then author then builds major plot points off these inaccuracies. Then I set down the book and read something else. Usually because I feel the main character is a stupid and deserving her fate.
Reality is a harsh mistress. Heh.
How does bad analysis trap authors in this world of insipid characters and flat plots?
Take this following scenario:
Harold chases the one-armed man into a North Portland alley in a fit of rage. Turning the corner, the one-armed man shoots him three times, takes his cell phone and runs away.
This is painful. Harold can barely speak. He tries to yell for help, but no one hears him. Finally, a delivery boy on a bicycle stumbles upon him and calls 911. En route to the hospital, Harold dies.How did Harold die?
If you said he was shot, then that is the wrong answer from an analytical standpoint.
Why did Harold die?
Harold was shot three times.
How did Harold die?
He bled to death because he did not receive medical attention.
Am I stating the obvious?
Maybe. You can get silly and say, “Harold died because he was stupid in chasing a person he knew was violent into an alley and then got shot.”
But Harold died, literally, because he bled to death. No one heard his cries, and he did not make it to the hospital in time.
In the United States, if Harold had received medical attention sooner, he had a good chance of living. How soon a person winds up in the Emergency Room is the primary factor on how people die when they get shot.
If the one-armed man did not take his cell phone, Harold could have called 911 himself.
Why is this distinction important?
Because it’s real. In Hollywood, people get shot with a small caliber pistol and die as if shot with a high-powered rifle.
Now that’s fine and dandy if I am reading to be entertained. Who cares? Show me the bad guys, give me boobs, a car chase, and an explosion.
In a police procedural, this type of inaccuracy sucks. Or a techno thriller. Even in most speculative fiction.
Let’s go back to the one-armed man. Looking into the scene without the back-story, this man could have been defending himself. After all, he is handicapped. But the moment he took the cell phone, his true nature is revealed. He is cold and calculating. He led his victim to an isolated place, shot him, and took his only means of summoning help.
These nuisances are critically important when plotting, because they avoid clichés and inaccuracies. People have been dying of blood-loss since the dawn of blood. The one-armed man could have stabbed Harold. Poked him with a sharp stick. Being shot by a bad guy is not a magical way to die, and indeed even with modern handguns, shot placement is everything.
We can say Harold died because he was shot by a bad guy.
We can also say I drove to work on the right side of the road this morning.
And thus, we come to the money shot. The Full Monty promised in this blog title.
Writing why Harold died is TELL.
Writing how Harold died is SHOW.
Oooooo… Show vs. Tell. Now doesn’t that sound familiar!