“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most well-worn saw in teaching creative writing, supposedly originating with Aristophanes. It’s not bad advice, of course. The ability to dramatize action, characterization and relationships in scenes is essential to most engaging story telling. Mastery of the well-crafted scene in which the reader is able both to experience the situation at hand, and also interpret it – “read” it for meaning and understand its implications and reverberations in the story as a whole — is necessary if one is ever to be a successful writer. So why is it then, that I have come to want to kick something (or someone) whenever I hear that particular phrase trotted out?
I was discussing a novel-in-progress with a writer who had hired me to critique her draft, trying to make her understand that her book had too much “showing.” Her last teacher, she told me in self-defense, had told her to “show, don’t tell.” It was all I could do to keep from lowering my head and beating it against the desk. That bit of advice had resulted in over 500 pages of long, shapeless scenes with no sense of why they were included, except that some action or conversation had occurred and the author had essentially held a camera on it, “showing” but determined not to tell a thing – no background information, no context, no backstory, no facts – nothing to shape the material and help the reader “get” what he or she was supposed to be paying attention to. It was all surface, action, vignettes, showing, but no sense that what was shown needed to be selected for a very specific reason, that it had to “do” something in the novel besides just create “mere verisimilitude.” The advice to “show, don’t tell” was the equivalent of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It had left the writer with no sense of why she was showing or what the showing was supposed to accomplish, or even that you don’t have to “show” everything. It was, to my mind, actually harmful, dangerous advice, a real disservice to the struggling, developing writer (aren’t we all) who was trying to learn to write.
A quick survey of some of the writing books on my shelf reveals a strong emphasis on the “show, don’t tell” dictum. William Sloane, in The Craft of Writing, says, “Many unsuccessful writers have difficulty believing the simple point of showing, not telling. They believe in a sort of Divine Right of Kings by which the fiction writer can choose whether he is going to show or to tell. No such right exists.” He goes on to say that he believes everything in fiction has to be conveyed to the reader by way of scene. Needless to say I don’t agree with this!
Bill Roorbach, in Writing Life Stories, comes on strong for the idea of showing: “A good scene replaces pages and pages of explaining, of expositional excess, of telling. Instead of a passage about your family’s socioeconomic status, you show your dad pulling up in the brown Ford wagon, muffler dragging… Let the reader write the passage about class.” This is basic stuff, good fundamental creative writing pedagogy, great to incorporate into one’s repertoire of writing techniques, but it does give the impression that simply mastering “showing” will make one a successful writer. Roorbach, of course, knows it’s not that simple and he states his bias: “Certain writers (I’m like this) are made out of narrative – characters doing things, dialogue, action – that’s all they really know or care to do.” He discusses exposition, and he acknowledges that to talk about scenes or pure narrative [showing], as he calls it, vs. pure exposition [telling] is “nutty…since the two forms can’t be so absolutely separated.” Right; they are often intertwined or should be.
Janet Burroway’s book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft has a chapter entitled “Showing and Telling” which gets closer to what the developing writer needs. “In order to move your reader, the standard advice runs, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ This dictum can be confusing, considering that all a writer has to work with is words. What it means is that your job as a fiction writer is to focus attention not on the words, which are inert, nor on the thoughts these words produce, but through these to felt experience, where the vitality of understanding lies.” How do you do this? She goes on to talk about “significant detail,” which combines the use of sensory detail that is concrete and appeals to the senses, with material that is selected to help shape [my emphasis] the narrative: “A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both.” The selection of significant detail is what allows the reader to interpret the action, not just “see” it. See in the sense of make sense of, not just view. And both showing and telling can contain these kind of details.
Burroway has a good discussion of scene and summary, describing them as methods of treating time in fiction. “A summary covers a relatively long period of time in relatively short compass; a scene deals with a relatively short period of time in length. Summary is a useful and often necessary device: to give information, fill in a character’s background, let us understand a motive, alter pace, create a transition, leap moments or years. Scene is always necessary to fiction [her emphasis]. A confrontation, a turning point, or a crisis occurs at given moments that take on significance as moments and cannot be summarized.” She says that one of the most common errors beginning fiction writers make is to “summarize events rather than to realize them as moments.” In such a story, the writer would probably find “show, don’t tell” written in the margin! And rightly so.
The problem is, some students of writing take the advice to “show, don’t tell” to mean that they should never “tell,” but only and always “show.” And why shouldn’t they? They’re undoubtedly confused or unsure about the use of exposition or summary, of “telling” – which they’ve been told represents bad writing. So they turn everything into scene. In my critiquing biz I’ve seen many pieces of fiction (and some memoir) in which the writer seems to believe that he or she can’t tell anything. Everything must be shown. But just because something is “shown” doesn’t mean it’s good. The struggling writer realizes that something is missing. He or she realizes that the writing doesn’t seem like the writing one reads in magazines or books, but can’t figure out why or how it is failing. There is a certain thin quality, a lack of density that the writer recognizes but is at a loss to fix. The advice of “show, don’t tell,” which may have been helpful or appropriate at a beginning level, leaves him or her in the dark at this point, unable to make the leap to the next stage of writing sophistication.
Although the problem of getting stuck in “show, don’t tell” can apply to both memoir and fiction writers, let’s just talk about fiction writing for a moment. And in particular, about stories written in the third person. Nothing is more common, in my experience as a creative writing teacher, than to read a 3rd person story by a student which begins in an entirely experiential, scenic mode. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – many successful stories are launched scenically. But we also need to get enough information at some point to “get” the scene …information that can be supplied and dispensed with quickly by a narrator. If that information is specific and detailed and particular enough, we won’t even notice (unless we’re paying careful attention as writers, not just readers), that we’re being “told” anything. We think we’re seeing it. It’s telling disguised as showing.
So. Stories are both told and shown. Most stories are told, ultimately, by a narrator who knows the story and can select and shape the material, going into scenes where they are needed, and telling when that is right, rather than just presenting everything as if through a camera, with the unspoken expectation: “here, you make something of it!” When we begin reading, in most successful stories, we begin hearing a story (being told). The story is, in fact, being narrated, told, not just shown. We are partaking, in modern form, of the ancient ritual of story telling, in which we draw round the fire and a voice takes up residence inside our imaginations, allowing us to live experiences not our own, but for the time being more real and engrossing than our own lives, which fall away when the story takes over.
Let’s look at the the opening to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway’s story that makes brilliant use of a scenic opening:
“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
“Is it really?”
“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.”
“Don’t! Please don’t.”
“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?”
These first lines are so loaded with characterization, voice, situation, relationship, and drama, so functioning in terms of tone, selection, timing, so pitch perfect for capturing our complete attention, for making us want to read on, that they serve as a great model for “show, don’t tell.” It may be, in fact, that Hemingway is responsible for the proliferation of that particular writing adage.
But soon enough – in the next line, actually – the voice of a narrator comes in, setting the scene for us and indeed, providing some perspective, the sense that the story is being ‘told,” before the narration slip into Harry’s head. “The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and [here the point of view flows into Harry] as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick-moving shadows as they passed.”
Is the description “making quick-moving shadows as they passed” Harry’s perception or the narrator’s? They merge, of course, but I’d say it’s the narrator’s description. The story continues in Harry’s point of view as he lies dying from the gangrene in his leg. At the end, there is a section break and a shift to Helen’s point of view. But despite how scenic the story appears, and is, it also has a definite narrator who comes in to provide information and give shape and language to the experience being dramatized.
Here’s an example of the opening of a story that has a very strong narrator telling the story. It doesn’t open in scene, but in summary, giving the reader a lot of information and texture that would take forever to be “shown,” if it even could be.
“For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.”
This is the opening to a short story called “Pharmacy” from the inter-related stories in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (an excellent collection, by the way). I don’t know about you but I love this opening. I love the last line “…and in the winter he loved the smell of cold.” Isn’t that fine, how it awakens your own nostrils, makes them flair. And wouldn’t you say this is telling? We are being told about the character, we hear a narrator’s voice giving us all this information, and there is no scene: we are not in one particular time and place. We’re in habitual time, summary, not scene.
But how rich it is in establishing a character and story. How assured the writer is that she can take her time, that she knows her stuff, that she has a story to tell, which she will get to in her own good time! Look at these carefully observed details such as the wild raspberries, the sound of the tires, the sight of the bay and the smell of the pines. These sensory details engage us in the material, in the way sensory details in the real world engage us in life. We are drawn in, and we imagine that we are “there” in some way, experiencing the story, not just being “told.” But we are being told. As the story progresses, the calm, precise, authoritative voice of the narrator continues telling us the story, condensing enormous amounts of interior characterization (“Inwardly, he suffered the quiet trepidations of a man who had witnessed twice in childhood the nervous breakdowns of a mother who had otherwise cared for him with a stridency.”). There is no way to “show” that, it has to be told, as part of establishing a dense characterization. It takes a narrator to do that, to tell us.
Now listen to the start of a story that begins scenically, but then gets a huge amount of information and backstory in by interspersing the “showing” with “telling.” The “showing” in a sense buys the writer time to feather in the “telling”—so that we can get to the real story…the forward action…much more quickly and efficiently:
“The McElroys really don’t care about seeing us anymore—aren’t you aware of that?” Jonathan Ferris rhetorically and somewhat drunkenly demands of his wife, Sarah Stein.
Evenly she answers him, “Yes, I can see that.”
But he stumbles on, insisting, “We’re low, very low, on their priority list.”
Jonathan and Sarah are finishing dinner, and too much wine, on one of the hottest nights of August—in Hilton, a mid-Southern town, to which they moved (were relocated) six months ago; Jonathan works for a computer corporation. They bought this new fake-Colonial house, out in some scrubby pinewoods, where now, in the sultry, sulfurous paralyzing twilight no needle stirs, and only mosquitoes give evidence of life, buzz-diving against the window screens.
In New York, in their pretty Bleecker Street apartment, with its fern-shaded courtyard, Sarah would have taken Jonathan’s view of the recent McElroy behavior as an invitation to the sort of talk they both enjoyed: insights, analyses—and from Sarah, somewhat literary speculations. Their five-year marriage has always included a great deal of talk, of just this sort.
However, now [my emphasis to show you that here we returning to the scene, to “showing”], as he looks across the stained blond maple table that came, inexorably, with the bargain-priced house, across plates of wilted food that they were too hot and tired to eat—as he focuses on her face Jonathan realizes [we’re now in his point of view] that Sarah, who never cries, is on the verge of tears; and also that he is too drunk to say anything that would radically revise what he has already said.” And so on!
It would be worthwhile to note how much information we now know about Sarah and Jonathan! Alice Adams, in this short story called “New Best Friends” just comes out and tells us a lot of stuff! A lot of necessary information (relevant information) has been laid down by the time we get to the end of the first page! But with great details: telling disguised as showing. The story feels dense, textured, layered.
And that is because she both shows AND tells.