“Show, don’t tell.”
We’ve all heard it. We’ve all struggled to do it. For me, it’s often the bane of my writing existence.
It’s not that I don’t know what it is or what it looks like, it’s simply that I like being told in the stories and novels I read. Peter Pan, Tom Jones, Lolita–all of these books have strong narrative voices that do a lot of telling. And I love it. Always have, probably always will. And so, naturally, I tend to emulate that storytelling style in my own writing.
And, inevitably, I’m told, “No, no, show, don’t tell. It will be much better.”
And, y’all, I’ve struggled with this. Because no matter how right these folks probably are, I LOVE telling and I LOVE being told when I’m in the hands of a capable storyteller.
So, feeling ambivalent about this common writing advice, I set out to learn more, to learn all I could, about showing and telling, starting at what I knew as a reader and student of the novel genre. And I’m going to share it all with you over my next several posts!
In this week’s post, I’m showing you what telling is and explaining why I love it so much! So read on 1) to learn the briefest and most-condensed history of telling in the novel, 2) to see stellar examples of telling in some of my favorite novels, and 3) to find an explanation of when and why telling works.
A nano history of novelistic telling
The novel has not always looked like it does now. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example, telling was much more common than it is now. Classic novels like Henry Fielding’s hilarious Tom Jones use strong third person omniscient narrative voices that are, in and of themselves, characters. When the narrator of Tom Jones narrates, readers learn almost as much about what he values as we do about Tom and the other cast of characters. The narrator tells us about Tom and the others as much as we discover about them through the action of the narration.
Even into the twentieth century Peter Pan includes an incredibly opinionated narrator who’s style is more telling than showing. Of course this could be because J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan as a play first, and much of the narration in the novel is similar to stage directions in the play.
It’s no coincidence that these are two of my favorite books. I love the narrative voices that divulge information about the plot and characters instead of, or along side, having it acted out by the characters. No line gets me more in the feels than this one from Peter Pan:
“All the boys were grown up and done for by this time; so it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them. You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella. Michael is an engine-driver. Slightly married a lady of title, and so he became a lord. You see that judge in a wig coming out at the iron door? That used to be Tootles. The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John.”
More stellar telling
I think that, at times, telling works. It’s poignant, it’s affective, it, as I note above, stabs us right in the feels. Take, for instance, some of my favorite moments of telling in some of my favorite books.
“…he would talk to them of stories and books and explain to them how stories wanted to be told and books wanted to be read, and how everything that they ever needed to know about life and the land of which he wrote, or about any land or realm that they could imagine, was contained in books.
And some of the children understood, and some did not.”
–John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things
“But Bird was not only following the patchwork song, which she believed was meant for her; she was not only running from Summer; she was also running form her own guilty, hurting heart. So there was nowhere to go back to. Nowhere to go, nowhere to return.”
–Katherine Catmull, Summer and Bird
“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.”
–J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone
In all of these quotations, the words are so evocative, so dripping in emotion, so full of TONE, that we don’t need to see a scene unfold. We don’t need to see the children not understanding stories. We don’t need to see Bird enacting her guilty heart. We don’t need to see the Dursley’s being normal (though to be fair, Rowling uses the rest of her chapter to show just that). But in these moments in these texts, it’s enough to be told.
The telling alone is enough to bring the idea to life. Anything more dramatic would, somehow, undercut the subtlety of the moment.
If telling is so bad, why do these lines work?
There’s a variety of reasons telling is a good narrative move, when used sparingly and thoughtfully. To understand when and why to “tell” as opposed to “showing,” let’s turn to the excellent A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (the inner English major in me will never abandon my Nortons).
According to the Norton, we should “show” when we want to:
- Dramatize emotions
- Move plot forward through action
- allow the story to unfold objectively
We should “tell” when we want to:
- Play with time
- Analyze or give commentary on action
- Give character history and/or background
- Describe character emotion or reaction
If we were to analyze the quotations I gave in the previous section, we’d see this list reflected there. In Peter Pan and in The Book of Lost Things, the authors are speeding up time, moving their characters and their readers forcibly into their protagonists’ adult futures. In Summer and Bird Catmull is describing character emotion in a heart-wrenching way. In Harry Potter, Rowling is establishing character history and background.
It’s easy to see why I like telling and how telling is useful!
But it’s also crazy important to know what “showing” is and how it differs from “telling.” And that’s the subject of my next post! So stay tuned in the coming weeks, readers and writers, as I use what I learned on my journey into the shadowy regions of “show, don’t tell” to help you understand it better and, in the long run, write kick-a$$ fiction.
What’s your relationship with “show, don’t tell?” Do you love it? Hate it? Let me know!