This is the first in a 12-part series by Fort Worth based fiction novelist Jeff Bacot on challenging conventional literary rules in fiction writing. Jeff Bacot is a freelance writer of fiction and blogger of unconventional thought. He has written two novels and 17 short stories. He graduated from Southern Methodist University with two undergraduate degrees (BA, BBA) and one post graduate degree (MA).
So, indulge me please for a minute, and let me “tell” you something and “show” you nothing. So, yes, you know where I’m going here. We writers have all heard the noise from our peers, editors, publishers, writing books, and those fussy rule-enforcing creative writing teachers. Can you hear them screaming in unison? “SHOW ME, DON’T TELL ME!”
Believe me, I have seen it in red ink on virtually all my manuscripts, heard it from instructors, been barbecued in my writing groups for it, and read it so many times, it just sounds like a parent preaching to a child to “brush your teeth, wash behind your ears and eat your vegetables”. Well, guess what, I’m not playing by their rules anymore. And neither should you. So come with me for a minute, let’s explore this, and let’s put some gel in our hair and spike it, wash our brains of the brain washing, and eat a freaking double cheeseburger instead.
First things first. What exactly does it mean really, to “show not tell”? These words we have all heard so often. These wrongs we always write. The short answer is this:
(1) “Showing” is allowing the reader to witness, in his mind, the events being described through dialogue and action. (It’s what they use in movies, television and plays. Everything is visual, so it’s shown.)
Example: “’Sniff, sniff…,’” the disheveled man in the torn robe, and the scraggly beard, and the dirty long hair, rubbed his tearful eyes, then put his hands on his head and looked down.
(2) “Telling”, conversely, is summarizing or narrating what is happening via description or telling the reader what is going on, or what the character is thinking. It’s more passive, but informs the reader of more uninformed detail.
Example: “Jesus wept.”
No matter your religious affiliation, these two quotes basically say the same thing. Right? Sure. But one of them has a much more powerful message, is thicker in meaning, and frankly is just more memorable. Maybe you don’t agree, but we can agree that one of these quotes has survived and thrived the test of time, and the other just makes me want to hide in a cave and weep in agony for its unnecessary tedium. Amen.
“Show, not tell…you will bump into this piece of conventional wisdom. The problem is, it’s wrong. Well, wrong is perhaps too strong a word. Let’s just say it’s certainly not always right. And it could be wrong for you. Very wrong.” So says Alice LaPlante in her book The Making of a Story. She is an award winning published fiction and non-fiction author and also Creative Writing teacher at Stanford University. I think she might be trying to tell us something and she might be onto something important when we listen to conventional wisdom. And write based on it.
I have read a lot of pure “showing” authors, and frankly, their popularity escapes me. I love Hemingway, the maestro of showing not telling. But, am I the only one who reads his books and constantly thinks and asks, I must be an idiot? I don’t get it. Please TELL ME MORE.
A noted fiction novelist and blogger on this very subject, Shirley Jump, disagrees with many of my points here, but even admits in her blog piece, Show Not Tell, that: “A mix of both showing and telling is a good idea. You don’t have to show every single thing in your book. Sometimes, a quick telling helps get through a slow part or provides a quick recap. The goal of your writing is to make it vivid and strong.”
Filling in those parts of a story that just can’t or won’t be shown via dialogue or action is an important tool in writing fiction with beauty, meaning and memorability. “Telling” lends itself to providing an easier and more efficient method of filling in missing or unknown thoughts, emotions, backgrounds, and motives of characters. But, most importantly, the setting and places for the story.
Places? Let me elaborate. After writing, and before publishing, my first novel On The Hole, I decided to have a fairly famous editor critique my work (Yes, I am a certifiable masochist with really thick skin). This pedigreed editor has several PhDs, and incidentally, has written seven fiction novels, and, by the way, he is also the head of the English department at a very famous university. He knows his show. There were several parts of my book that he was heavily critical of my “telling” of the story. He scribbled in angry fonts, “Show Me. This is just TELLING!”. Here is a sample passage of my book that he skewered:
“Nick rolled his eyes and clicked off the phone. Staring at it for several seconds, he thought of the troubled client that kept calling, and his own paranoia. The golf course was supposed to represent refuge from the world, not retreat from enemies. Nick reminisced quietly about the memories that were made here on this course that remained inert, invisible, forgotten: bets lost, promises made, deals inked, friendships betrayed, bonds forged, secrets divulged, lives changed and sometimes, ruined. He thought of how little he actually knew of what had occurred here. The golf course seemed to epitomize the duality in human nature. It was both hospitable and hostile, yet these shadowed grounds made a secret pact with everyone who walked on them to remain silent---about all.”
The editor’s comment was “too much telling”. Well, exactly how would one convey these vital thoughts about a place (that place is really THE key “prop” to the story) into “showing” them? Impossible, is my answer. I tried. This short part is one of the most important and telling pieces in the story; a story that would collapse without this short narration of a place and its meaning to this character. The “duality” mentioned above is the concept and meaning on which the story hinges. Should I just say, he hung up his phone and looked at the dubious landscape curiously. Hmmm……
Sparring about this subject with an experienced and heavily credentialed editor is well, risky, I will admit. Many of his criticisms were taken and used, with my head bowed in deference. But the advice of “show, don’t tell” is handed out with such frequency, often with such severity, and sometimes without reason or explanation, it becomes easy and predictable editorial critique and thoughtless advice dispensing, to the devastating detriment of the intimidated author’s original intent for a story.
Let me delve further. A second example of a piece in my novel that was showered in red ink (recommended removal actually) due to the telling nature was this:
“Jay thought how much this world had rhythms, movements, and sensations that suited him. He enjoyed the camaraderie, the competition, and the chemical collision of testosterone and alcohol. All these things were fine to him, but they were not the reason he played. To him, no experience quite matched walking out onto the course and surveying the landscape, inhaling deeply the bounty of sensory joy. There was always the fragrant scent of newly mown grass, the leather smell of a golf glove, the aroma of mesquite wood from the clubhouse grill, the distant hint of a cigar being puffed somewhere.”
Again, how would one transfer these important sensory details into “showing”? Jay’s love affair with the game and the course would take too long and be way too tiresome to show. The reader would drop the book. (He might anyway.) The point of the story is about the meaning of the friendship of two guys, but the importance of their affection for their surroundings when they are together is essential, nay critical, to the story, but only insomuch as to better understand the complex relationship of the two protagonists. I looked at the comments from the editor when I got the review back and exhaled with a sullen, forlorn gaze.
Parts of these two narrations I wrote might be categorized as “showing”, I would agree, and thus disagree with the tag “telling.” (i.e. cigar being puffed, surveying the landscape, etc.) So, let me be clear on one thing: categorizing passages as “showing” vs. “telling” is a bit like dissecting a frog. If you have to go to the excruciating trouble of methodically cutting them apart and dissecting them…well, they die. Sometimes it’s too hard to do it anyway. Of critical importance here is to acknowledge the importance of both, but don’t show too much and shy away from telling when the story demands it (or asks for it nicely anyway). To impose stiff rules on our creativity makes for a dull, flat, limp, forgettable story. Believe me, I’ve written them. Send me your email address, I’ll “show” them to you anytime.
In the movie Field of Dreams, the memorable quote was “if you build it, they will come.” In my movie, entitled Telling The Way, my memorable quote will be: “If you tell it right, it will be read”. Let me repeat that for effect, if you tell it right, it will be read, and remembered, and loved. Now you are free! Go forth and tell the world! Show them something when you write, but please first, remember this is not a movie, TELL the story. Do that, and I promise, they’ll show you the money. And if anyone asks you, just tell them Jeff told you so.
Jeff is a member of Greater Ft Worth Writers group. Please comment below. If you'd like to follow Jeff's blog, it can be found at http://jeffbacot.tumblr.com