Show Don't Tell
My favourite writers’ workshop adage was trotted out for me again several times last month. You know the one I’m talking about (in case the title of this post does not give it away), the old “show don’t tell” advice, which with the way it is bandied about, has really become more of a rule than advice.
I use the word favourite loosely because I actually flipping hate this advice. Why? 1) because it is not strictly true; 2) because it suggests that the reviewer lacks the imagination or ability to provide more specific line by line commentary or at least identify the cases of ‘telling’ for discussion; and 3) because most people don’t know what it really means.
I will confess immediately to being one of those people who doesn’t know precisely what show don’t tell means beyond obvious egregious examples. Show don’t tell basically means that rather than telling the reader something i.e. Bob was old, or the room was ugly, you show them the same thing by ‘painting a picture’ using vivid language, actions or dialogue. Keep in mind here that you are still really telling them in a way – you are still using words. We don’t suddenly cut to a movie scene. But I will go with it for now.
So the writer shows us that Bob is old by saying something about the way he walks (a slow shuffle), his appearance (liver-spots on his hands), his manner of speech (gruff), and what he says (young folks these days have no idea) or the situation he is in (old folks home with lots of female admirers). We paint a picture and let the reader deduce that Bob is old (or likes 80-year-old women so much that he puts on an old man costume and goes to old folk's homes) – we must never tell the reader this. Showing is more participatory, creates a mental image for your reader and gets the reader more involved in your story.
Great – you’ve got me. I will never say that Bob is old. This is an easy example of where, generally speaking, the writer should show not tell. Ditto goes for saying Mathilde was angry. Instead I will show her thrashing about her room in a frenzy with a wrenching gut, gathering her weapons (described in detail) to take the post office at gunpoint.
But what about other cases of potential ‘telling’? Most of the examples provided in the show don’t tell ‘curriculum’ are the obvious ones. For me, beyond the obvious examples, the distinctions become less clear. For example, what about when the writer wants to say something about the character’s internal dialogue, or provide some summary information about something that occurred in the past that the character is thinking about in a particular moment, or just simply say what is happening.
I checked out pages 175 to 190 in four books on my bedside table. Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott, Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor, The Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie, and Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden for more subtle examples of telling. This is what I found:
- “Her temperature stayed high throughout the night, no matter what Clary did.” I don’t see the character thrashing it about on the bed covered in sweat as the hand of the clock sweeps around. Is this showing or telling? I don’t know. And it was not a carefully chosen example – it was the first line my eyes fell on, on the first page I flipped open to in the book on the top of my pile.
- “I’d made sure to tell my sister and my close friends that I was going into the bush to trap again and to build a new hunt camp.” Is that telling? Do we need to see him telling his sister for it to be showing?
- “’No,’ Saul said, reeling from the Assassin’s attempted butchery of his self-respect.” We are told Saul is reeling. We are not ‘shown’ him flailing about the ward in which he lives with his hand pressed against his forehead.
- “The weekend was mediocre.” Surely that is telling. I’ve got this one nailed I’m sure of it. Right?
Are any of these examples bad writing? I don’t think so. Are they ‘telling’? Heck if I know. Would they get through the show don’t tell scrutiny of a workshop….? I don’t know. Someone should send these poor writers a memo and let them know that they are not doing it right.
What about when the information is not important to the story? “The server provided the drinks.” Is that painting a sufficient picture – is that showing, or is that telling? Must the server have yellow hair, untweezed eyebrows, and halitosis and slam the drinks down on the table? When a year passes, a year that is irrelevant to the story, can we not indicate that the year passed in summary – interesting summary of course? If we must show everything, there can be too much detail that exhausts and bores the reader.
Moreover, what does only showing and never telling do to the story? Does it make the writer into a movie camera and our story consist only of images about which the reader must draw their own conclusions. Is that what good story telling has become? Story showing? I don’t buy it. Many writers have become so obsessed with showing their readers every little detail and emotion of their characters through some physical reaction or tic that novels have become overloaded with characters that grind their jaws, curl their lips, roll their eyes or flare their nostrils. I feel sometimes like every character is Edgar the Bug from Men in Black twitching and writhing their way through every scene. Many physical shows of emotion are so overused that they have become clichéd not to mention irritating.
I think skilled writers show and tell (At least from the examples that I’ve looked at. But what do I know – I still can’t completely tell the difference). For great arguments in this regard, see Joshua Henkin, Lee Child, Jenny Martin and Jael McHenry. Henkin refers to ‘show, don’t tell’ as the great lie of writing workshops. Instead of being the hallmark of a lazy writer, maybe it is the hallmark of a lazy workshopper. I get the need for showing not telling for the most part. But there has to be some greater exploration of what the show don’t tell rule means and where and when it should be applied before it is dished out so liberally in writing workshops. As Child observes, readers don’t care about showing versus telling, they want something to carry them through the book.
Addendum: Just found this article. It is a great addition to the discussion: The Show Versus Tell Debate
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