“Show not tell” – that old chestnut. Trotted out as a mantra at the start of every creative writing class you’ve ever been to. A large part of every “How to write a book” guide you’ve ever read. The single most oft-repeated catch-phrase in reviews of books submitted to writers’ sites like writeon, BookCountry and the old Authonomy. Is it important? Is it a “rule”? Are there situations where it’s right to “tell”?
Was it always thus? Let’s start with historical context. Jane Austen, bless her freshly laundered cotton socks, started Northanger Abbey with an entire chapter of telling – four pages describing Catherine Morland’s character and education to date in painful detail. If anyone is still reading at the beginning of chapter two, Jane is off again, even more blatantly telling:
“it may be stated, for the reader’s more certain information, lest the following pages should otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be; that her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind…”
…and on and on and on. The idea that “the following pages otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be” would have the “show not tell” police throwing themselves from the mullioned windows of their ivory towers.
It’s true that Northanger Abbey was one of Ms Austen’s first attempts, and it took thirteen years and the success of Emma and Pride and Prejudice and the rest to convince a publisher to actually publish it (and even then after Jane had shuffled off her mortal coil) so perhaps “telling” to this extent was even then a bit of a faux pas. But many of the great Victorian novels (the era which some still insist was the heyday of the art form) are replete with “telling”. Dickens opened The Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This first sentence is blatant “telling” (and also, since he spends the rest of the book showing us why this was so, entirely redundant). But it’s a hell of a start to a story.
So historically, there was no such rule, and instead, “telling” or, to give it its proper literary term, narration, figured hugely in what are still regarded as great works of fiction. This isn’t the place for a scholarly thesis on why this was so, but it probably arose from the narrative tradition of the spoken word, epic poems like Beowulf being narrated over flickering camp fires.
So what changed?
If in doubt, blame Hollywood. It’s probably an over-simplification to say that film alone was the cause of the death of narrative fiction, but it’s got to be a contributory factor. Forget reading descriptions of the physical appearance of characters, we suddenly see them alive and breathing. Physical description becomes intrusive (and often conflicting, if you’ve seen the film before you’ve read the book). And motivation and emotion (should) become transparent. Clint Eastwood doesn’t turn to camera and say, “Now I’m pissed”. He stares down the Scorpio Killer and asks him “Do you feel lucky, punk?” We now expect the same in our books. We expect the emotion to be delivered in the words the character says. We don’t expect to have to be told – we expect to be shown.
Is this a good thing? Well, yes and no. It’s made fiction more immersive. It’s made its impact more immediate, more visceral. But in trying to ape another medium in the delivery of a story, perhaps the novel has lost something unique. And there’s a tautological corollary; that if you don’t comply, your prose feels leaden and oppressive by comparison with every other best seller on the bookshop shelf.
We need to draw a distinction here, I suppose, between literary fiction and commercial bestsellers. In my first post on this blog I mentioned Annie Proulx and Ian McEwan, two literary heavyweights. They both start acclaimed novels with narrative, as I mentioned, but they’re masters of their art, and I doubt whether they’re reading this blog for writing tips – they’re not really my audience.
So what are the mechanics? What are we talking about when we say show, not tell? Really, anything to do with emotion or motivation. Dirty Harry doesn’t turn to camera and tell you he’s angry. He just glares into the middle distance and squints a bit, and we get it. As soon as I see a word like “angry” or “afraid” in a manuscript, my editing radar clicks in. Other tell-tales are adverbs, speech modifiers, and verbs like “to look” and “to feel”. Tragically, most of these problems often stem from an author just lacking the confidence in their own writing ability. The most frustrating examples I see editing are when an author has done everything right – they describe a scene beautifully – but then let it down by explaining laboriously afterwards. It’s as if they don’t believe that they’ve pulled the magic trick off, shown someone to be absolutely furious without even mentioning the word “angry”.
In “Show not Tell. Part II”, I’ll go through some specific examples of each problem area.