Do Either; Each is Beside the Point.
One of the age-old adages of writing tips is “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s in nearly every book on writing I’ve read, it’s in my dad’s writing course (The Writing Course). If you aren’t familiar with the concept, the basic idea is, when writing, your goal is to show the audience what is taking place in the story, rather than simply telling it. You’ve probably experienced this in real life; two types of friends who relay a past experience…one simply tells what happened, “We went to the beach and saw manta rays jumping out of the water” while the other shows you what happened, “We were walking along the beach, our feet just outside of the tide’s constant grasping, when suddenly we heard something leap out of the water. We turned and saw three manta rays flying above the waves, etc.”
I think the spirit behind the advice is helpful, but the phrase itself needs to be rethought. I have found “Show, Don’t Tell” to inhibit my writing, rather than help it. It champions the immediate-scene, and seemingly forbids exposition or narratorialness.
For me, I love writing dialogue more than any other aspect of a story. When it comes to describing a scene, or an action, I start thinking too hard, I start relying on the thesaurus to figure out how to say “he stabbed the monster” again in a different way, I start using similes and metaphors like…a lot. I write, “Damien stood up” and then delete it, telling myself, “You fifth-grader! The audience can’t see him stand up. How are his legs bending, how is his posture, does he grunt at the effort? Don’t tell them he stood up, show them! They must see what standing up really looks like through words!” Much of this is my own obsessiveness, but most writers seem to have a healthy measure of self-loathing. That’s a different problem. My problem is “Show, Don’t Tell” overwhelms my thoughts so much sometimes I’ll just quit writing for the day. Or I’ll fluff up a passage, or bear down on details that make the story chunky and distracted.
Now, I do not think that all the writing books (or my father’s course) that promote this cliché have got it all wrong. I don’t think they’re prescribing a style that inherently cripples the writer. By “Show, Don’t Tell” they don’t mean, “When you describe, make sure you detail every inch of action, every color on every leaf in the setting, make a long list of every angle of the scene.” Tolkien was master of all that kind of world-building, and even he had to stop himself at some point. The givers of the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra try to better explain it with phrases like, “You want your reader to feel like he’s there.” or “Don’t tell the reader ‘Billy was evil’, cause the reader to conclude it by showing Billy’s villainous ways.” This is more helpful advice, but even it limits the writer.
Here’s my prescription, and it might be flawed, and it might not work for everyone (I don’t want to be one of those writers who gives off that his way is the only real way to write. I say “whatever works”, and so on). My prescription is, “Show? Tell? Just Make it Interesting.” Now, before I expound, I will say it’s good to aim at making your reader feel like he’s there. You want him to finish the book with a sense of familiarity, like he knew those characters and saw the sights and felt the impact of their decisions. On the other hand, a book isn’t a play, it’s not a movie, it’s not a visual medium. It’s all in the imagination. Lots of readers will not read every word you write, nor will they catch every word of description or action. That doesn’t excuse you from putting it in the story; just bear in mind that in the final analysis they’re going to see the characters and settings the way their brain wants. Whenever a film adaption of any novel comes out you’re sure to hear a hundred different “I don’t like the actor they chose for Gordon, he’s too pale” or “Silvia looks perfect!” or “I always pictured the trees with more translucent leaves” or what have you. The fact of the matter is usually that Gordon was described as pale, and Silvia is woefully miscast, and the trees were clearly written as having dark, DARK leaves. It doesn’t matter, for as many readers as you have, you have just as many different styles of mental concept art. None of that’s to say descriptions are pointless, but they aren’t the end-all-be-all. Nor are scenes of action.
Anyway, back to my method, “Show? Tell? Just Make it Interesting.” I have this idea somewhat from my own experiences, but also from Brenda Ueland, a passionate passed-away author, whose book “If You Want to Write” proposes the importance of “interestingness” in writing. Go read her book. But now, I’ll use evidence to try to support my claims. I will cite various examples from books by authors I admire. The passages are brief, out of context, I admit…but should be considered all the same. They are examples, regardless. So, these are good authors, telling (for the most part), rather than showing. And it’s all great stuff.
“They left the cart in the woods and crossed a railroad track and came down a steep bank through dead black ivy. He carried the pistol in his hand. Stay close, he said. He did. They moved through the streets like sappers. One block at a time. A faint smell of woodsmoke on the air. They waited in a store and watched the street but nothing moved.”
-Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Cormac McCarthy, the king of choppy, naked sentences (preceded by Hemingway of course). “They did this, they did that.” Sure, action is taking place, but it is told, it is explained; very little is shown. Dead black ivy, woodsmoke, and that’s as good as the showing gets.
But it is interesting, things are moving along, he has his gun out but there’s no one to see. They’re moving like sappers, whatever that means (I don’t know, it isn’t shown to me, and I’ve never been a sapper), but it’s militant, and things are dangerous. I’m interested.
“…the two men shook hands with the rather labored cordiality which is traditional in such meetings. In actual fact Ransom had disliked Devine at school as much as anyone he could remember.”
-C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet
Later we learn why Ransom hated Devine, but at the outset we readers are force-fed Ransom’s stance on Devine. Many authors nowadays say that’s a no-no. Lewis should have led us along, showing us that Ransom hated Devine in his actions and dialogue, in the immediate-scene, not told it flat-out, or given anecdotes as happens later on.
But I say, who cares? Character A disliked Character B, that’s good to know. It’s brought up again and again, even shown in immediate-scenes, but for Lewis to tell us it before any of that, it’s informative, it’s interesting. It begs the question, why does Ransom hate Devine? Keep reading.
“ ‘Your grandfather Thror was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin.’
‘Curse his name, yes,’ said Thorin.
‘And Thrain your father went away on the twenty-first of April, a hundred years ago last Thursday, and has never been seen by you since – ’
‘True, true,’ said Thorin.”
-J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Here’s a great example of not only telling rather than showing…but also expositional dialogue between two characters discussing facts they already know. This kind of trope was parodied hilariously in the new season of Arrested Development by Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor’s characters, where they both inform each other of their plans, and keep remarking, “Why do we keep explaining things we already know?” or something to that effect. In the above example, Gandalf is telling Thorin about his grandfather’s death, his father’s disappearance, and Thorin replies, “Yes yes of course. I know these facts.” Tolkien is giving us dwarf history in no subtle terms, nor subtle methods…
But it’s interesting. We’re learning of a battle, a murder, an enemy, a hint at the longevity of dwarven vitality. It’s all very plain, all very told, and all very intriguing.
“I am not able to say, with precision, from what country Hop-Frog originally came. It was from some barbarous region, however, that no person ever heard of — a vast distance from the court of our king. Hop-Frog, and a young girl very little less dwarfish than himself (although of exquisite proportions, and a marvelous dancer), had been forcibly carried off from their respective homes in adjoining provinces, and sent as presents to the king, by one of his ever-victorious generals.”
-Edgar Allen Poe, Hop-Frog
Another history lesson; Poe is explaining to the readers the backstory of Hop-Frog. It’s vague, between lacking a name for Hop-Frog’s original homeland, to mentioning the young girl’s “exquisite proportions” (again, whatever that means).
However, Poe is still telling (gasp, telling) a story here. It’s a strange story, which Poe is somewhat known for, and he paints a clear picture of Hop-Frog’s lowly, kidnapped origins without showing us much of anything. He relates bare facts in a subjective, narratorial tone, and it’s all clever and insightful anyway.
Again, I don’t believe that those who promote the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra mean everything must be written as an immediate-scene, or information can never be given through exposition, or that every description needs a plethora of adjectives addressing every sensory aspect of every setting. I also believe there’s a chance I have misunderstood this saying ever since I heard it, and have allowed my own dysfunction twist its meaning. But I don’t find the saying very insightful or helpful now that I’ve rethought it. It’s too blunt and too limiting.
I think what “Show, Don’t Tell” aims at is great. A good story is experienced; it isn’t spelled out. You walk away from a good book feeling like you knew the characters, saw what they saw, felt what they felt. And I think that can be accomplished through showing or telling, as long as it’s interesting. I don’t think my revision of the cliché is very good, but it helps me to write with a more focused purpose. I do not think there is one single absolute way to write well, though I do think there are guiding principles to consider. The only absolute I cling to is ‘interestingness.’
Your writing should be interesting. Show or tell, show and tell.
Your reader should be interested. People don’t sit and stare at pieces of paper, hours at a time, for any other reason.