The most often repeated nugget of writing advice has to be “Show, Don’t Tell”. There is a beautiful brevity in this writing commandment. Lengthy explanations seem unnecessary, an immediate understanding at once obvious and unambiguous. Except, this aphorism can be, if not wholly deceptive, then certainly a little misleading. For as a whole, it's a fallacy, containing only a half-truth.
There are those who would have you believe you should adhere to the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule as though it were a law set in stone. As though if broken, or deviated from, at worst you would have to answer for your sins before some higher counsel. At best, explain your laziness and confess to being a lesser writer.
In the very unlikely case that you are a writer unfamiliar with this enshrined edict, we’ll first explore this distrustful though well-meaning rule.
This is “tell”:
As Frankie wandered into the dark, silent wood, she felt frightened.
This is “show”:
As Frankie wandered into the dark wood, her hands shook and in the silence she could hear her own heart pounding against her eardrums.
There's little doubt that your emotions were far more aroused by the latter sentence than the former - and rightly so. The writing is more descriptive, more evocative, and as a writer, it's what you should aim for. We can see Frankie is feeling frightened. We can relate to the uncertainty of her situation, the unknowability of what thing might be lurking in the darkness, ready to pounce and devour her. We feel her fear. Empathise with her plight.
Such is the intent of the "Show, Don’t Tell" received wisdom.
Well – yes and no.
Now take a closer look at the “show” example and answer the following questions:
What exactly is Frankie afraid of?
How can you be sure it’s fear she’s feeling at all?
From what context have you drawn your conclusion?
Were those questions a little more difficult to answer than you expected?
Is it possible you’ve put too much faith in this author’s authority and have been deftly hoodwinked?
Or is it perhaps something else?
We're only human. We all make quick assumptions, leap to conclusions. We all do it all the time. We are all too ready and willing to listen to and obey our intuitive voice speaking in the very moment, rather than taking a minute or two to think about what we are certain we know. After all, our intuitive voice can be an unreliable narrator. She loves to lead us astray, walk us up the wrong path. Psychologist Daniel Kahnemen would describe this as a problem of “fast thinking”.
If we use the “tell” example as a stepping-off point, we cannot help but pick up the word “frightened”, and carry it forward through to the “show” example. And thus are we primed. So that when we read Frankie’s hands are shaking and her heart pounding as she walks through a dark wood, we can readily deduce that she's afraid.
But - if you did not have the “tell” example to provide you that small clue, and took the “show” example in isolation, the narrative description becomes rather more indistinct. There could be any number of reasons why Frankie’s hands are shaking – from cold, hunger, illness, exhaustion, grief, even joy. We cannot simply assume it's because she's wandering through a “dark wood”, no matter what our cultural experience might conjure in our gullible imagination and intuit as certainty. It’s not beyond the realms of plausibility that the wood is her birthplace, her home, that Frankie is a woodland elf, returning after a long absence and is shaking with anticipation, her heart palpitating through nervous expectation.
And now you're aware of your error, your human susceptibility to being easily deceived by your own quick-to-judge mind.
Of course, if we were to appropriate that single word “frightened” from the “tell” example and cunningly embed it into the “show” example, we can at once remedy any ambiguity existent in Frankie’s state of mind.
As Frankie wandered into the dark wood, her hands shook and in the silence she could hear her own frightened heart pounding against her eardrums.
So the point is this: sometimes you need a combination of both Show and Tell in order to eliminate any uncertainty within a narrative. In particular, when context is vague or remiss.
But there are further complications that could arise by pedantically employing the "Show, Don’t Tell" diktat throughout an extended piece of prose. Unless you intend to pen a novel running to a gazillion pages long that few will want, or have time, to read, “telling” is the best way to advance the narrative to those parts more salient and stirring.
In other words, not every event in a story needs a fully expositive narration of its own. Sometimes, a brief summarisation will stand perfectly well in its place.
But what makes the cut, what's important to the story, only the individual author can decide and know.
The earliest novels were written almost exclusively using the “show” directive. Narrative was all surface, all exteriority. A character’s behaviour, personality type, and intention was described through action alone, with scant access to their innermost feelings; the showing of emotion was the responsibility of dialogue. Anything else was unashamed, authorial intrusion: the Victorian writer’s penchant for residing over their creations in a God-like manner, with explanatory asides so as to show-off their superior philosophical wisdom for the benefit of their less-enlightened readers.
Emily Bronte would not have expected anyone to drop onto the shrink's couch her famous story of supernatural happenings, social snobbery, and spurned love. The idea of psychoanalysing Heathcliff and all the possibilities of his mysterious early years that saw him orphaned, and then his treatment at the brutal hands of others in order to explain why he turns out the way he turns out – a dark and cruel, brooding, necrophiliac monster – would have entered nobody’s mind. When she conceived her unreliable narrator in Nellie, the titular Wuthering Heights’ housekeeper, she would not have been influenced by Freud, whose revolutionary theories around the Id were still forty or so years off. A reader was simply expected to take it at face value that her foundling boy was born evil and grew up to become a more evil man.
Plenty contemporary authors, it should be noted, though, still adhere to the all-surface way of doing things. And there is nothing wrong with that. Publishers know only too well there is a huge market need for genres that provide this kind of narrative, books that readers can escape into, that require little thinking.
Nevertheless, every art form must – and, arguably, should - evolve to avoid becoming stale and dull and all-too-familiar. It’s true that one person may be content with chewing on steak every night, but another will kill for a bite of roasted chicken on a Sunday, murder for the taste of a pizza on a Friday.
Because humans hunger for fresh flavours of stimulation. Humans yearn to experience something new, to experiment, to explore the unexplored. They like to seek out different ways of looking and thinking, to ask questions about who we are and our influence on the time in which we live as a means of understanding and discovery.
And thus did history give us the Modernist writer.
When the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf came on the scene, they shook-up the old guard stalwarts of conventional literature by employing all the new-fangled ideas of anthropology, psychology, philosophy, political theory, and psychoanalysis. They took us inside the minds of their characters, and endowed them with subjective thoughts. Suddenly we were given a never-before-seen view of a protagonist’s interiority. Now we could understand not only what emotion they were feeling in a given scene, but why. We were privileged with a sort of telepathy that allowed us to read their innermost secret thoughts and opinions.
The Modernists scratched under the flesh to ask what it was that made humans itch.
Which meant sometimes a reader was being “told” what a character was experiencing emotionally. Therefore, if a character declared that she was “frightened” of walking through a dark woods, you could take them at their word, and it needed no further description – no extended “showing”.
After all, it came from the mind of the character themselves. And because you knew that character in a more intimate way than any reader had known a fictional character before, inside as well as out, you knew their fear was entirely in keeping with who they were – a timid little mouse afraid of their own shadow, perhaps? Or else, curiously, that it was unlike them at all.
To summerise this, then, since the great majority of us possess an ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, and own a sharp intellect, to boot, in some instances, any extended exposition always risks adding unnecessary flab onto an otherwise lean piece of writing and making it slump under the weight of saying too much.
For prose, concision is all.
Thanks to such avant-garde writers, then, who taught us another way of writing and of thinking and of portraying our characters, by whom we could have them hold up a mirror and in its glass recognise ourselves and the tragic follies and flaws of our human condition, today many writers eschews the “Show, Don’t Tell” only form of story-telling. Rather, they use a combination of the two, allowing for a less constrained and freer way of writing.
Nonetheless, there are still those mavericks, such as Fay Weldon, who show it’s possible to publish a novel written almot entirely as "tell".
As with any creative pursuit, one size doesn’t fit - nor suit - all. The scales of “show” and “tell” will tip to one side or another depending on the sort of novel you’re writing, what sort of writer you are. And while rules are always certainly sensible to learn and follow, sometimes it just feels damn good to go rogue and break a few.
Just to see what new grounds can be found.
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