The most common piece of writing advice in circulation is “Write what you know.” Coming in at a very close second is “Show, don’t tell.” These are two excellent maxims to keep floating around in your head when you write. The former reminds you to do your homework and the latter reminds you not to blather on endlessly. The problem is that, as true and sensible as they are, these sayings have been repeated so often by so many that they’ve become these creativity-constraining mantras, wherein Write What You Know means “you can only ever write about your own backyard” and Show Don’t Tell means “Anything but action and dialogue is boring and unnecessary.”
Specifically, I’ve been rather irritated of late with Show Don’t Tell. Apparently this means that “telling” a story as opposed to “showing” it is bad writing. For example, telling would be, “John was an angry man, subject to wild mood swings. His notorious rage was a formidable weapon against his enemies.” Whereas showing would be having John display his rage in some scene. The argument is that constructing a scene in which John displays his rage is a more powerful device than just telling the reader about it. Fair enough. Point taken.
But... A narrative isn’t only made up of action and dialogue, it’s also a rendering of the character’s thoughts. Sometimes the whole beauty of the thing is being immersed in the character’s personality as though we were sitting right in his or her (or its) head, seeing the world through his or her (or its) eyes. It’s not just telling the story – it’s telling the story in a specific way. What’s significant isn’t that Charlotte tells the reader that John has a temper – thanks, we’ll probably be seeing that firsthand in a minute anyway – but rather that Charlotte is thinking about it and that it characterizes her personality as well. She sees his rage as a formidable weapon: does this mean she, as opposed to others, is not afraid of John’s temper?
Granted, you can argue that first-person narration can get away with “telling,” because it’s like another person telling you a story. You don’t stop someone in the middle of an anecdote with: “Show me, don’t tell me!” Yet even a third-person narrator, however omniscient or neutral, still functions as a specific filter through which we experience the story. The author has chosen those words for a reason. At least, we hope he or she is using them for a reason. I can’t deny that some literary classics are exhausting in their efforts to discuss and dissect the world at large, bringing the actual narrative to a grinding halt and trying the reader’s patience. From hence the desire to show rather than tell.
As I said at the beginning, that’s great advice when you take it in the right context, but out of context it reduces all written narratives to novelized screenplays. A screenplay, no matter how brilliant or artistic, is a blueprint of the movie to come, not the finished product; movie audiences won’t read it. A novel isn’t a story’s blueprint, it’s the actual story given dimension and detail. We shouldn’t automatically dismiss something as unnecessary or irrelevant just because it doesn’t advance the plot or because we may be able to infer it through dialogue. And this is coming from a person who not only gets itchy every time she has to spend more than three lines describing something, but who actually defines herself as a screenwriter. Lately I’ve been testing my skills with writing a novella, which is why I’ve been repeating the sentence: sometimes it’s okay to tell.