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Showing, telling, and a truckload of nonsense

Showing and telling is probably the topic on which more nonsense is spoken than anything else – but is also an area where, if you truly understand what you’re doing, you can make a colossal difference to your work.

One of the main bits of nonsense around this topic is the idea that, as per this quote from autocrat.com, “Show Don’t Tell. It’s the first rule of writing and for good reason.” It’s not the first rule. I don’t think there is a first rule, but if there were it would have to do with the basics of character and story.

I’ve also seen it suggested that any telling is bad. That agents will reject a piece of work that has telling in it. That statements like “Jane was angry” are bad. And so on. This is all untrue.

Indeed, many of the examples of telling (=bad) and showing (= good) are unconvincing and, worse, actively unhelpful as a tool for explaining how to write. Here, for example, is a list from the (generally perfectly dependable) Jerry Jenkins. In all the pairs that follows, Jenkins favours the shown version, not the told version.

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.

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. Cleaner is better.

As for the second clause (“could tell he had been smoking” versus “sweet staleness of tobacco”) – 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.

Telling: It was late fall.

Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.

Here again, I suspect the first sentence is preferable is most cases. You wouldn’t ever, in a novel or memoir, say, “It was late fall”, unless you were at some transition point – in other words, some significant time had elapsed since the last piece of action. And what easier way to mark the transition, than simply to say, “It was late fall”? That gives you what you need to know and does so with speed and clarity. Sure, in the rest of the scene, there’ll be plenty of crunchy leaves and chilly wind and slanting sun and whatever else you like. But mark the transition, then move on. That’s helpful storytelling.

Telling: Suzie was blind.

Showing: Suzie felt for the bench with a white cane.

Again, what on earth is wrong with that first sentence? Nothing. It transmits the key information without any problem at all. If you only had the second sentence, the reader is liable to think, “Suzie must be blind, right? But if so, why is the author not just telling me? Is there some mystery around this?”

And look, you don’t have to take my word for this. EL Doctorow was one of the great writers of his generation, and one of his books (Homer and Langley) begins with these words:

“I’m Homer, the blind brother.”

That’s telling, right? And EL Doctorow wasn’t a dummy, so presumably that sentence is OK. What’s more it’s the opening sentence of a beautiful paragraph:

“I’m Homer, the blind brother. I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out. When I was told what was happening, I was interested to measure it, I was in my late teens then, keen on everything. What I did this particular winter was to stand back from the lake in Central Park where they did all their ice skating and see what I could see and couldn’t see as a day-by-day thing. The houses over to Central Park West went first, they got darker as if dissolving into the dark sky until I couldn’t make them out, and then the trees began to lose their shape, and then finally, this was towards the end of the season, maybe it was February of a very cold winter, and all I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me on a field of ice, and then the white ice, that last light, went grey and then altogether black, and then all my sight was gone though I could hear clearly the scoot scut of the blades on the ice, a very satisfying sound, a soft sound though full of intention …”

Now I’m pretty sure that no sane reader would read that paragraph, and think, “Well, nice try, EL, but the first sentence is pure telling, as is the second and the third. Personally, I have to consider the writing rubbish until we get to the fourth sentence.”

In fact, what I think an alert reader would notice is that:

  • There is a gradual movement from very blunt telling to very expansive showing
  • Also, from short sentences to long
  • Also, from full vision to total blindness
  • Also, from rather general statements “I’m the blind brother” to ones – that last one – with real granular detail about how the world manifested to one particular individual.
  • The emotional movement feels wholly reassuring and absorbing
  • And it’s wonderful writing, from first word to last.

And this, remember, is the first paragraph of a book. The blunt opening sentence sets a scene. The next two give a bit of context. The subsequent sentences then make use of the reader’s position of knowledge (“We have a teenager, going gradually blind”), to elaborate on what that experience is like. The first sentences create the opportunity for what follows.

So one useful observation from all this is that telling is (generally) best used at transition points. The blunt information download would feel empty if that’s all you gave the reader. But of course, you won’t stop there. You’ll go on to deliver more flavoursome, showing-type language as you get into the scene.

Equally, sometimes there are points within the scene, where it would be just nuts to try to show something. For example: “The CIA is broken into four departments, or directorates – of operations, intelligence, administration, and science and tech. The Directorate of Operations is also known the Clandestine Service, and is responsible for collecting foreign intelligence from human sources, or assets.”

It might be necessary for a reader to know something like that to make sense of what’s happening in your story. But how would you show that? Why would you? Would you want a scene with the Director of the CIA gazing at a wall chart with an org-chart on it, while a helpful secretary says, “Sir, am I right in thinking that the Directorate of Operations is sometimes also known as the Clandestine Service?”

Pretty clearly, telling is fine at any transitional point in the book. It’s pretty damn useful for data download. And all books are a mixture of telling and showing.

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Comments (11)
    • OK Harry, I'll TELL you something for nothing. This was a bloody good post! You TOLD it like it is. Thanks a million.

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      • Thank god for you, Harry. A myth busted and my life is now easier. 

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        • "When I was told what was happening, I was interested to measure it, I was in my late teens then, keen on everything." That's a real punch of a sentence. It tells so much.

          It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it. 

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          • Or, from my early teens: a little bit of everything does you good 😂

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            • So true! 😁 

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