If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard “Show, Don’t Tell’ a million times. It’s one of those maxims you can’t escape. But I’m going to stick my neck out and declare…
I think that advice has led to a lot of really terrible writing.
Before you come at me with your sharpest pitchfork, let me explain my madness. I do believe, in many ways, it is good and useful and wise to ‘show’ things. There is a time and place for the camera pan, the action shot, the external focus. But a novel is not a screenplay. A movie is a string of external cues–visuals and sound–that tells a story. The viewer relies on these cues to make sense of the plot and all its underpinnings–the internal, intangibles such as emotion and theme.
The novel is an entirely different medium. A novel conjures a singular experience, not just through external description (what a camera can capture), but also by internal perception (the heart and soul an ordinary telephoto zoom can’t record). In a novel, there’s a lens that trumps all.
The human lens.
The fictive stream of consciousness. The thingamathink that pulls us under the skin of a character. The internal processor that that recalls events and interprets every moment of action in the context of a character’s deepest hopes, dreams, memories and fears.
Yet...motivated by well-intentioned advice, so many writers neglect this lens and start out writing novels like screenplays. They try to live by ‘show’ alone–moving characters here and there on a stage, describing everything in objective, surface-level terms the way a wide-angle camera shot would. This cheats the reader and sentences them to a parade of colorless, cliched gestures and descriptions.
John’s eyes widened in anxiety. Mary’s heart hammered. Glen’s jaw clenched. Raul’s brow quirked. Anna’s lips curled in a smirk. Neville clenched his fists at his sides. Snakes slithered in Jonah’s stomach.
Ugh. These gestures and reactions are all generic. They illuminate nothing about character, personality, conflict or plot. As Francine Prose so aptly writes in Reading Like a Writer, “they are not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states.”
Meaningless shorthand. Yes. But darn it, they show and don’t tell. And that’s the rule, right?
WRONG. WRONG. WRONG.
I am nothing more than an puny, unpublished, unknown Writer/Librarian/Beatle-Maniac, but I will not recant. I will not! Because writing fiction is a form of storyTELLING. I agree with Joshua Henkin when he calls ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ the ‘great lie of writing workshops.‘ I say go ahead and slip under that murderer’s/ballerina’s/magician’s/vampire’s skin, tap into that stream of consciousness and TELL that story, infusing every moment that matters with personality and voice.
And if you still aren’t ready to drop your pitchfork, please look at these ‘show vs. tell’ examples before you skewer me:
Showing only (Excerpt altered. All telling parts omitted/edited):
“We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras.
Peeta extends his hand. I look at him. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. I take his hand, holding on tightly.”
Showing with Physical Gestures: (Excerpt altered. Telling parts omitted/edited and replaced with physical gestures/reaction):
“My stomach twists into knots. We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras. When Peeta extends his hand, my eyes widen. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says, his jaw relaxing. I take his hand, holding on tightly. A shiver of dread runs down my spine.”
Showing and Telling (Excerpt as published, unaltered):
“I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.
So we just stand there silently, watching our grimy little station rise up around us. Through the window, I can see the platform’s thick with cameras. Everyone will be watching our homecoming.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me. I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.”
–Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES
I think writers need to so show and tell. Still disagree? Did I miss something? Have I forgotten an important point? I’ve braced for impact, so fire away!