Sometimes it's okay to tell.

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by Stella

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.


kathleenmaher said...

Much needed advice for writers, Stella. I've longed to hear the maxims qualified.
Both ideas, "show don't tell" and "write what you know," apply more strictly to beginning writers. Learn to shape scenes and master dialog before describing everything. And, don't try to wing it as an astronaut unless you know one very well. Otherwise, read up first.

Mike French said...

It can be subtle - for example instead of saying John was angry you can write, John's eyes narrowed - it doesn't have to be action per say - just a way that shows an emotion rather than describing it. You can write a whole novel with hardly any "telling" without it being reduced to a screenplay.

In the end it's good advice for new writers as Kathleen says. Once you have mastered the basics then you can start breaking some "rules" and doing some showing in places once you know what you are doing.

All to often though I read writers who have just started out and they push you so far away from their book with the amount of showing that you end up not caring about it as after you've been told the tenth time that so and so was ..... you rather switch off. Much better to get the reader to feel or see the emotion rather than been told it all the time.

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

Stella - yes, hit the nail on the head. You can get so hung up with the little 'teacher's' voice don't tell, show, don't tell... that I end up not being able to just get on and tell the story.

I once reviewed a piece where the characters told us, what the narrator was trying to say though, "But before we begin, I feel there’s something I need to tell you…” - it felt addressed to the reader - not the other person in the dialogue. "you're probably wondering why we didn't just..." Oh it was awful - I felt so bad for them - but it really made me learn something for my own writing too.

How abot use of similie, metaphor and 'over used' phrases - I can get so hung up on NOT saying, he was 'over the moon' or something similar, that I can get stuck, how else would the character say that?... and sometimes I think maybe it would be OK?

Stella said...

Kathleen - Exactly - the idea is not to let these principles totally suck all creativity out of your work.

Mike - I think I should have emphasized that balance is the goal. I'm simply disheartened by the idea that all telling is bad and therefore should be dispensed with altogether. It's as though the mentality is that anything that doesn't advance the plot is useless. Too much dialogue and action can be a bad thing too.

Jen - I really know what you mean. Figurative language is a tricky issue because sometimes you can't get around using a common saying, as inventing a new one would either be too artificial or perhaps out of character.

Mike French said...

Yep I agree with you Stella - sorry if you were in any doubt about that! Great article all too often these things like POV Show don't Tell etc instead of becoming tools become doctrine and people get silly about it. I once had a comment on my work that a scene I was describing was switching POV and therefore was not good as the main character couldn't see it. ( It was written in the third party, the guy was in the train and I was describing something about the outside of the train) Mad.

Stella said...

Gah. I hope the person wasn't a (supposedly) professional editor from whom you expected constructive criticism.