On Showing and Telling and Telling and Telling

Sometimes it’s hard to know how much to tell someone, in real life or in writing.

The museum near me has a lovely exhibit including a really brilliant Roman mosaic discovered in Israel. Now, I’ve had a lot of classes on art history, especially architecture, and have worked on a dig. I’m not an expert, but I tend to gather knowledge about artsy, dusty things. It’s one of the things I nerd-out about, and once I start talking about it, it’s very hard to get me to stop.

So, when the people next to me at the museum started trying to guess things about the mosaic it was hard to keep my mouth shut.

“Oh look at the weird horse thing.” One of them said. “It’s a crazy sea monster!”

“It’s not a horse-thing.” I thought. “It’s a hippocamp, a mythical combination between a seamonster and a horse which supposedly pulled Triton’s chariot. Its inclusion with elephants and zebras, imports to Rome, probably stresses Rome’s naval power. Maybe a show of power in a conquered land.”

I’m always torn between grabbing these people and telling them everything, and wandering away and telling them nothing. Honestly, the general rules of being polite seem to suggest I should leave them alone.

However once, on a family trip to Italy, I noted that there were no signs describing most of the buildings. I ended up playing tour guide for my family, going on and on about Trajan and pilasters and fasces. Everyone once in awhile I caught my fiancé giggling. Later, when I asked him why, he said it was funny to watch the other tourists lean in and try to hear what I was saying.

On the other hand I have seen people’s eyes glaze over when I start talking about these kind of things. I try to keep it under my hat unless I know it’s welcome. People like to know things. They often like to learn, but they also like to imagine and create their own truths and stories about things.

This comes up in writing quite a bit, especially when I am familiar with my subject. It’s hard to tell when to stop telling people things. Does it matter when the haunted house was built? What style it is? The color it was painted? It could, or it could be too much. It’s often hard to tell, and I’ve seen great stories bogged down by too much information dump. Likewise, more depth can be added to a story by making a reader do some work themselves, letting them imagine and create part of the story.

For me it’s one of the hardest things to avoid, and I generally attack it by dumping as much information as I want and then asking my fine friends and editors where I should pull back.

In this case I decided less was more and went to check out the Lego exhibit, which I knew nothing at all about, and thus could enjoy more.

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