Continuing my series, ‘How to Follow Writing Advice that Makes No Sense,’ please comment with your ideas of when it is better for writers to ‘show’ and when to ‘tell.’
Do you remember your favorite part of kindergarten? While I am tempted to name ‘Nap Time,’ memory forces me to acknowledge that naps only became precious to me later in life. No, my favorite part of kindergarten—and probably yours—had to be ‘Show and Tell.’ These were the moments that I could bring in my tricycle, greeting cards or guinea pigs, and allow my classmates to gawk enviously at them while I supplied detailed narrative about their mechanical, emotional or bodily functions. In kindergarten, detail and clarity were rewarded, and Mrs. Arbuthnott would confirm with her warmest smile as she fought to keep from nodding off during the fourteenth minute of my diatribe.
As I began to show an interest in writing, though, it wasn’t long before my life became more complicated: teachers smiled less, and changed their mantra to ‘Show, Don’t Tell.’ I wondered then, and still wonder today, what this could possibly mean: given that a novel is around 80,000 words on pages, ‘Show Don’t Tell’ cannot possibly mean that authors should never tell anything.
A more likely intention is for us to judge when to tell, and when to draw readers into the story’s reality by showing instead. Anton Chekhov’s famous example, about describing reflections on glass to show moonlight, is fine… so long as the quality of the moonlight is the issue at hand. If your goal, on another hand, is to convey the anguish on the face of a tear-streaked young boy who happens to be standing in moonlight, then having your reader see multiple fractured reflections of moon swim through those rivulets might be quite effective. Even when showing, you have to tell something.
A fundamental question might be what part of the scene a writer wants to affect a reader: what should the reader should know, understand or feel. Passing descriptions may go unnoticed, but there is some irony in the truth that the affects readers interpret for themsleves are likely to resonate more deeply with them. Readers, like any human, must traverse their hearts through an emotion before they can feel it.
Of course, the advice to ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’ can be taken too far. When I had my prologue for Labels critiqued, the editor objected to my explanation that Jessica, the teenaged protagonist, could see another person’s wrongdoing when she looked into that person’s eyes. The editor felt that I should show this, not tell it, but I think she was wrong; I think that Jessica’s curse is so far removed from any reader’s experience that exposition is needed to introduce it: good, old-fashioned, possibly dull-for-a-moment ‘telling.’
So, when do we ‘Tell, Don’t Show?’ I think this is a starter-list, and I would love comments that add your ideas:
- Tell about traits that are unrecognizable, like Jessica’s ability.
- Tell about background that is necessary to understand the scene, but no more: though this is probably best paced out into pieces, Eloise’s lifelong hatred for television in Death Imitates Art would bog down the story if shown for too long.
- Tell some perceptions of your first-person narrator, but don’t be afraid to contradict them when showing. If your narrator thinks someone is a jerk, then some kindness from him might tip readers off that your narrator is unreliable.
- Tell about how the environment interacts with your central focus, like when that moonlight reflects in those tears.
Perhaps all this advice is really asking us to do is to be more like my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Arbuthnott; after all, she knew the difference between ‘Show and Tell,’ and ‘Nap Time.’