I’ve been having a debate with some of my writerly colleagues on the popular piece of writing advice: Show, don’t tell. It came up when a friend had her novel critiqued and the reader in question had referred to the strong authorial voice in her narrative and advised that she needed help with the rule, ‘Show, don’t tell.’
I am not here to argue that novels should be all tell and no show. Not at all, only that I’m tired of the bad rap that ‘telling’ gets when it is a vital part of storytelling. The question is not whether you should show or tell but when you should utilise these techniques and there are reasons for both. It is undeniable that writers should endeavour to write dramatic and engaging prose and one of the ways to dramatise your novel is to ‘show’, in other words use active language and detailed imagery through which the reader may surmise your meaning or ‘experience’ it fuller than if they were simply told what was going on and where. Showing involves dramatising your scene with the use of the senses, active verbs and cleverly drawn detail. But competent writers make full use of all the tools in their writing box and telling is also one of those tools.
When I hear of writers working to remove all the ‘telling’ from their novels, it makes me weep onto my keyboard. And to make matters worse, I recently read an article where the writer advised that there was almost no reason to use the verb ‘walk’ in your novel, that there were always more active ways to ‘show’ ambulation. What on earth is wrong with ‘walk’? I can’t think of a better word for getting a character from point A to point B. I’m sorry but the odd ‘he strode’ or ‘she traipsed’ if justified is fine, but I do not want to read a novel where characters: prance, trip, skip, dance, lunge, glide or stagger all over the joint. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats a well-placed active verb but there is a reason why some words come to us easier than others and that’s because they hold the truest meaning for what we are trying to convey.
‘Show, don’t tell’ is too frequently dished out as the ultimate writing rule, to be followed through every sentence of your narrative and shoved down the throat of every novice writer who has ever dared put pen to paper for the last thirty years. I say roughly thirty years, as it signals the beginning in a surge in Creative Writing Courses.
I’m not saying that CW courses alone spread this kind of mindless advice, I’m merely suggesting that in order for any course of education to work there has to be a set of directives to follow with regard to teaching, a body of rules has to exist in order to guide the student and it is my belief that, as the popularity of these courses has grown so has the body of rules – Show, don’t tell being the first sacred commandment to learn. The danger with all these rules is that we end up with fiction that reads like a literary version of paint by numbers. Thank the literary gods for rule-breakers.
I once read an article, written by an agent, who said that under no circumstances (paraphrasing) should a writer choose the ‘telling’ mode for the opening paragraph. The same agent claimed to reject any novel that came into her inbox if it had any ‘telling’ in the first fifty pages. Keeping this in mind, this agent would have rejected the following beautiful pieces of writing where all of the supremely talented writers have struck that wonderful balance between show AND tell.
It was 1936. The Olympics. Hitler’s games.
Jesse Owens had just completed the 4 x 100 metre relay and won his fourth gold medal. Talk that he was subhuman because he was black and Hitler’s refusal to shake his hand was touted around the world.
(The Book Thief. Markus Zusak. Black Swan/Transworld. 2007)
Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world.
(The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde. Random House)
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. JK Rowling. Bloomsbury 2001)
No one can persuade me that any of the pieces above could be improved upon by ‘showing’ more.
Who I feel most sorry for is Anton Chekhov, who reportedly started this whole thing. How he must be spinning in his grave to know that his name is being trotted out by every hack whoever gave bad writing advice. Here is the oft-chanted quote:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
If indeed Anton Chekhov did utter this advice, he most certainly did not mean for it to be steamrollered into every piece of fiction written. Chekhov’s short stories have a strong authorial presence, plenty of exposition/backstory and well-paced passages that utilise the narrator to move time along. In other words: loads and loads of TELLING. There is the possibility that if he did offer up this advice it was in response to the kind of novels that were popular at the time – diegesis heavy and often with intrusive narrators. But times and literature have changed, this type of advice is not something that should blow any modern writer’s mind but rather something to be aware of and ignore accordingly.
Use telling wisely. Use it to move time forward. Use it to create pace in your novel. To dramatise, a scene needs space around it. If every sentence is packed with action-specific verbs, adjectives and detailed, slow imagery, where will our tension come from? How does the reader know which of the seemingly pertinent details the narrator is lingering over is relevant to the current action or the action going forward?
Use telling to reveal character voice, use it to reveal narrative voice. Just keep a balance and make sure it’s a conscious authorial decision rather than laziness that’s causing you to ‘tell’ over ‘show’. But above all, use telling to show off your showing!