Obstacles to Good Writing #1: Telling, Not Showing, and What's Really Going On With That


You have probably heard the maxim ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ when it comes to writing fiction. I’m reading a book at the moment (which shall remain nameless) that tends to violate that piece of advice. I’m about a third of the way in, and by far the largest part of the narrative so far has been describing events almost like a historical chronicle, with very little dialogue or character interaction. It gets away with it to some extent because the ideas are intriguing, and also because the author has split the voice of the piece into two narrators, whose viewpoints the reader gets to see via alternating chapters. This structural device gives the impression that some kind of interaction is occurring, as the characters send long distance messages to each other, and it avoids what would become prolonged ‘telling’ were we to stick with one voice for more than one chapter.

But it got me thinking about how better to describe the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ principle. That led into examining some other story basics which might be of interest.

Firstly, ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is a colloquial way of guiding authors to encourage readers into a shared space. When an author simply describes what is going on, the reader stays more or less on the outside of the narrative, looking in. This is probably why some people hate ‘description’ in fiction, especially in older stories when pages and pages of minute elucidation of scenes tended to make story pace slower. Beckoning the reader into the fictional space is done through sensory variety and engagement with character.

Telling resembles essay writing or documentary reporting. It tends to focus on facts, tries to efficiently ‘set a scene’, and uses adjectives to conjure responses in the reader. Here’s an example:

Alexander felt depressed. The winter that dismal year was particularly hard: frosty streets meant that walking was difficult, especially down the hillside towards the grey, mist-shrouded town.

Showing, on the other hand, invites the reader to share whatever a character is experiencing. It tends to require more detail, but of a different kind - it needs to show the detail from a particular point of view, one that the reader can look through. Adjectives often tend to depend on the reader to write a little bit of the story themselves, as in the example above: what does the text mean by ‘depressed’, ‘dismal’, ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’? The reader has to fill in the gaps to some degree. But showing grabs back the task of story writing from the reader. Here’s the above example, converted into ‘showing mode’:

Tears welled up in Alexander’s eyes for no reason. Already the scene through the window was blurred by the double thickness of frost which that January had pasted the house with - now it became even more indistinct as the water in his eyes bubbled over and ran down his cheeks. He ran his hands down the back of his thighs - even through the thick winter trousers he could still feel the aching bruises where he had slipped and fallen on the brutal ice on the hillside, now impassable on foot. Was the town covered in thick fog? Or was it just a combination of his tears, the frozen window and the greyness in his mind?

Note the differences: telling is objective, depending for any emotional pull on the power of adjectives; showing is subjective, told through emotion.

Now that doesn’t mean that ‘telling’ doesn’t have its place. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is regarded as perhaps the greatest novel ever written but huge swathes of it are not only ‘telling’, they feature no characters at all and amount to essays on military history and philosophy. Virginia Woolfe’s To the Lighthouse similarly features passages in which there are no human beings present and the author reports on a scene like a disembodied journalist. Great fiction is able to change gears and to use a variety of tools. Even the book I mentioned in the first paragraph, though it is heavy on the telling, is not a ‘bad’ book. It all depends on what you are trying to do and how that fits in with the Bigger Picture of the work as a whole.

But a lack of showing because you don’t understand what you’re doing will permit readers to drift off.

That’s just one obstacle for readers, though. The second is pace. A story can proceed either too quickly, or too slowly. We’ll look at that one next time.

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