By the very nature of saying that a spectrum exists, there is a whole line connecting the two “opposites,” and any particular case may fall anywhere on that line, combining qualities of each “purity” (represented by the end points) in varying degrees.
My last post examined philosophical versus action/plot-driven fiction as such a spectrum. Today, I wanted to explore the hot topic of “showing versus telling” as a spectrum.
Now, showing versus telling is such a hot topic that it honestly has become over-examined and even boring. The basic point everyone is always saying: Showing is better. Don’t “tell.” Demonstrate. Illustrate.
On a (very) simplified level, I think we all agree with this: show, don’t tell. Showing is better. The problem is that writing is never simple, and we often try to adhere to this as a hard and fast rule when really it isn’t and can’t be.
My two points today:
- “telling has becoming extremely underrated as a narrative device
- “showing” and “telling” are on a spectrum.
First of all, whenever we “show” in fiction, we are also telling. We may choose to “tell” that Amy ran out the room, covering her face with her hands and slamming the door, in order to “show” that she is upset, and probably upset with reason (if we know Amy is not prone to overreacting.) We may choose to “tell” what Amy does in order to demonstrate her emotional state, rather than “tell” directly that “Amy was upset by what James said.”
One one level, “telling” what Amy does is “showing” what her emotional state is. And that is one problem with saying simply, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s just not a clear enough directive.
The fact is, you can write in such a way to show one thing and simultaneously tell another related thing. Perhaps when telling that Amy ran out the door, you are also showing that her relationship with James is in trouble and even a bit dysfunctional. If another character “tells” someone that Amy is afraid of James, point blank, you just might be showing (in very few words) that Amy and James’s relation is abusive, or you might be showing that this friend is misinformed, or that this friend has an ulterior motive for making Amy angry or for spreading rumors about her (depending on the story and the circumstance).
The Upside of “Telling”
Is it always good to tell? Of course not. But are there moments when “telling” makes sense? Most definitely.
First of all, our current tendency to disparage “telling” has killed the art of description in storytelling, and that is a shame. Long descriptions can be beautiful and very much worthwhile given a particular author’s style and purpose, even if those descriptions constitute “telling” and even if they don’t directly contribute to plot.
Fiction is more than plot. Than action. Narrative art is more than a simple account of who did what and when.
There are ways to “tell” well and ways to “tell” poorly. And if you “tell” well, you are writing well. Take, for instance, the first line of C.S. Lewis’s “Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
This line most certainly tells, rather than shows, who Eustace is. Just as certainly, it works. I think it is one of the best first lines I’ve ever read in my life. Here’s why:
- It packs a punch. And it packs a punch because it’s short. It accomplishes a lot in few words. You get a real picture of who Eustace is in far less time than it would take to “show” that.
- It is beautifully funny. Honestly, it has a comedic effect that I just love.
- It sets the scene and prepares the reader to be dealing with an unpleasant character. Sometimes, a reader does need to know a major character is going to be a pill. If we don’t expect it we’re far more likely to grudge it and stop reading.
I can’t imagine any editor reading that first line and telling Lewis, “Show, don’t tell!” Sometimes telling is just fine. Sometimes it just works. So if you find you have a passage that does a lot of telling, but it does it in a unique, creative, and engaging way, a way that accomplishes what you need and adds to the readability or the charm of your story, RELAX.
That’s not a problem.
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”