Thursday, February 7, 2013

Show and Tell

“Show, don’t tell.” This has become such ubiquitous advice for writers that it is accepted as dogma, but may have entered the realm of the cliché. Assuming, that is, that it ever had any real (or, at least, clear) meaning. I suspect that a revolution to overthrow this particular regime is long overdue.

In the first place, no one has ever been able to make clear to me, in a succinct fashion, what exactly the difference is between “showing” and “telling” when it comes to the written word. The general approach is to provide an example. Take this example, borrowed from another blog (chosen simply because it was the first to come up when I did a Google search for “Show, don’t tell) which can remain anonymous. This, we are told, is “telling”:

 “He sits on the couch holding his guitar.”

And this, we are told, is “showing”:

“His eyes are closed, and he’s cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover. It’s as if he’s trying to hold on to something that wants [sic] to let go.”

Just a moment’s reflection will reveal that the application of the word “telling” to the first example and “showing” to the second is completely arbitrary. It would be possible to switch this application with ease. One could argue that the first sentence is, in fact, the one that shows, because this is, after all, the only thing that the observer would see: a man sitting on the couch holding a guitar. The second sentence, by contrast, tells us a whole lot more about what is going on, none of which is actually observable. Perhaps this is just a bad example. The problem is that it is very difficult to come up with a good one.

Let me try to rewrite the first version:

“He sits on the couch with his eyes closed, his lashes flickering slightly, and the movement back and forth of his eyes visible behind the lids. He pulls the guitar closer to his body, pressing it against his breast. The tightness of his grip turns his knuckles white.”

Here I have described in much more detail what can actually be observed. I have tried to show what the guitar holder is feeling, without actually telling the reader. This, it could be argued, is “showing”. In the second version cited above, it becomes “telling” as soon as something is reported that cannot be observed.

I may have accidentally demonstrated here what the difference between showing and telling actually is, and it is clearly not what the author of that other blog thinks it is. Both the first and third version are showing: the third version simply shows more of what is going on. The second example, which is the blogger’s example of showing, is, in fact, telling. This simply serves to highlight the lack of precision and the degree of ambiguity surrounding these terms.

I would argue that sometimes telling is more effective than showing. For example, it is probably more effective to tell the reader that the character “was scared shitless”, than to describe in detail the change in the character’s pallor, the shallowness of his breath and the quickening of his pulse. “He was scared shitless” moves the action along at a faster pace. Showing in detail may be useful for creating a mood, building suspense, or moving the reader along slowly.

Although I have, in the process of writing this blog, clarified somewhat to my own satisfaction what the difference between showing and telling actually is, I think the point remains valid that the phrase is perhaps past its use by date, and was never very useful anyway. Much of what people describe as telling, is, in fact, just poor showing; and much of what they describe as showing is, in fact, telling. Whether we are showing or telling (and we need to do both), the point is to do it well, with some imagination and flair.

1 comment:

  1. It's always more entertaining for me if I can feel for the characters and be in on the action (imaginatively speaking) when reading a book, rather than distantly perusing an account of what's happening. I believe most cleverly written books are a mixture of show and tell. 80% to 20% maybe.