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Showing and telling, a middle route

It’s weird. No matter how many of these darn emails I write, I never quite know in advance which ones that are going to get a torrential response, and which ones just a trickle. We weren’t quite at torrential levels last week, but we were certainly healthily full – and a LOT of you spoke about how you’d found yourself gummed up by misleading advice on the showing / telling topic.

So I think it’s worth risking a follow-up here. In particular, I want to suggest a sensible middle path, that’s easy to follow and won’t make you tense up over a perfectly ordinary piece of writing.

Oh, and you’ve probably noticed, but – after a stupid, two-year pandemic brought to an end SINGLEHANDEDLY by this magnificent woman – the York Festival of Writing is back. Yabadabadoo! If you’ve been before, you’ll know exactly why you want to come again. If you’ve not been before, then scurry off and find out more.

Right. I’ll start by recapping from last week. We looked at this pair of examples from Jerry Jenkins:

Telling: When they embraced, she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.

Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and she shivered.

The great JJ preferred the shown version in every case, but I commented:

Of those two sentences, the first is clearly better. The word “embrace” means “to wrap your arms round someone”, so the second sentence is simply preferring a more cumbersome way of saying the exact same thing …

As for the second clause – well, you could go either way on that one, depending on what the purpose of your sentence was. But it looks like the purpose of the sentence is to connect (A) her awareness that he’s been smoking and (B) her emotional reaction to that knowledge. In which case, the first sentence does the job with economy and elegance. The second sentence actually clouds that understanding by avoiding direct statement.

And, I didn’t say so last week, but one of the troubles with the “Show! Show! Show!” brigade is that it constantly tempts writers into bad writing. Take a look at this pair of sentences (from Reedsy this time). Again, Reedsy prefers the shown version:

Telling: Michael was terribly afraid of the dark.

Showing: As his mother switched off the light and left the room, Michael tensed. He huddled under the covers, gripped the sheets, and held his breath as the wind brushed past the curtain.

Now it’s definitely true that the telling version there just does the job of conveying information more cleanly.  The reader needs to know something. So you tell them. Boof, done!

But also: every single part of that showing paragraph is cliché. All of it.

“Gosh! How on earth do I show that Michael is afraid of the dark? I know! Genius! I’ll place him in a classic fear-inducing situation – exiting mother, lights off – then I’ll show a fear response that no one could possibly misunderstand. Let’s have a bit of tensing. Not enough? No. OK, so let’s have Michael huddle. And grip the sheets. And, damn it, let’s have him hold his breath too. That should do it. Except, hmm, maybe we haven’t got into Michael’s head enough? I wonder what specific sounds or thoughts might be troubling him? Hmm. ** thinks really hard, swallows pills, drinks gin ** I know! Gee-Nee-Us! Let’s have wind rustling the curtains. That caps a magnificent paragraph, no? A brilliant telling detail that no one in the History of Literature will have thought of before. By heck, I’m on fire!”

The thing that underlies writing like this is anxiety – induced by a million dumb articles on showing and telling that totally confuse the issue. The result is authors so anxious to ram their point down the reader’s throat, that they end up at the small intestine.

So the main message here is:

Relax. Don’t worry about it.

The second message is:

If it feels natural just to tell the reader something, then tell them. Why stress?

But a third message is that there is an easy middle ground. Very often, we do want to see something more character-specific than the told version might convey. In which case, first tell the reader what you need them to know, then show them the character impact or response.

So for example:

When they embraced, she could tell he had been smoking and was scared. As she pulled away, she put her fingers to the corner of his mouth and said, ‘Oh, Kevin.’ Her voice was more sad than accusing.

He said, ‘Sandra, I –’ but his intended denials died before they were truly born. [And so on.]

Because you’ve already dealt with the “what’s just happened?” issue clearly and in a sentence, what follows can be subtle and unobvious. It can allow the characters to breathe as fully as they wish, because they don’t have to hurtle round the page trying to show the reader what the underlying issue is – like people trapped in some frantic game of charades, run by a mime-artist pickled in industrial-grade espresso.

Here’s the fear-of-the-dark example, done the same way:

Michael was terribly afraid of the dark, he always had been. As a child, he’d always needed a nightlight. In rural Ohio, powercuts hadn’t been that infrequent and his parents had learned they had to have a lantern on standby, with a candle stout enough to burn the whole night through. Even now, an adult, the first thing Michael considered on seeing any new place to sleep was how to avoid that total blackness. He preferred windows with streetlamps outside, doors that admitted a crack of light from the corridor, alarm clocks whose LED lights blazed bright enough to cast shadows.

Does that feel like showing or telling? It feels like showing, right? But you only get to the later, shown-style content, because of the easy doorway given to you by that opening sentence.

So relax. Tell if you want to. And “tell, then show” is a mantra that’ll work for you any time you want it.

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Comments (6)
    • Neatly links up with narrative, emotional and psychic distance, as Emma Darwin says specifically, and I'll wager Debi Alper agrees.  In fact, since my conceptual memory is like a colander, I need to keep going back to Darwin's blog about it, and my copy of Gardner's smart ('no prisoners' attitude) 'Art of Fiction,' I did remember Emma had a go at first person ABC of psychic distance, thus:


      1. In the far-off days of Uther Pendragon, witches stalked the earth.
      2. Every village had its witch, and we feared or consulted her according to how desperate we were.
      3. When I was a child Mistress Margit frightened me, and when she walked down the street the big ones would shout "Here comes Old Margit!", while I hid and crossed myself.
      4. And here came Old Margit, with her ragged clothes and her big black cat, and I shivered and prayed because St Mary would save me, wouldn't she?
      5. Margit’s coming and her cloak like little demons dancing and what’ll I do – mustn’t catch her eye – hide in the ditch cold and wet but Black Peter will see me – Mother Mary save me, he’ll look at you and then Margit can see into your mind and plant demons in there and...

      and I reckon that spectrum between telling and extreme showing supports Harry's point since line 1 and line 5 work rather well together if reframed a bit.  I think so anyway. Look, that's me putting my bid in for a place at the psychic distance table in York later this year. 

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      • Well, thanks so much for that enlightening tip—
        To tell then show with flare and rare panache.
        I’ll leave the alexandrine to the pro:
        “In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

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        • How strange, to hear "Alexandrine" - a word I didn't know - twice in a day. The BBC Kermode/Mayo film podcast mentioned a scene from Asterix and Cleopatra in which an Egyptian speaks in iambic hexameters, and Astrix explains that he's an Alexandrine. It's a very literary pun for a comic book. And now Harry and Mary are on the Alexandria trail too. Spooky!

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          • I much enjoyed hearing the magnificent woman on Radio 3's Private Passions https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0013zxy

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            • I’m glad you’ve spoken up for the middle ground. There are lots of occasions where sitting on the fence is actually more sensible than rigidly sticking to one side of it. I fell into the trap when I first started writing of listening to the “show don’t tell” mantra as if telling was a cardinal sin. The consequence was writing that my primary school English teacher would have gushed over and given gold stars for. Unfortunately primary school English teachers don’t give gold stars for decent grown up writing. Now that I’ve allowed myself to read stuff back as if I’d paid for it in a book shop rather than as Miss Tennant would have marked it I can lose all that fluff and make it actually make sense (hopefully!)

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