Show, Plaintiff vs. Tell, Defendant

It’s the trial of the millennium, and one of the most basic and aggravating tenets of fiction writing: the case of Show vs. Tell.

Basic, because following the law this precedent sets makes an enormous difference in the result of your work.

Aggravating, because it’s difficult to define, to apply, and to even discern when you’re doing it and when you’re not.

Outside the writing world, identifying what’s shown and what’s told is obvious. You can tell people what fresh-squeezed orange juice tastes like; or you can squeeze a Florida orange, and show them. But when you’re writing, you use words for both processes; and that makes the difference harder to distinguish.

All writers probably aren’t as thick-skulled as I am, but this has always been a difficult concept for me to grasp. I read a lot of different definitions, some of them conflicting. Plus, despite the diligence of my critique partners in beating me over the head, it took a long time for the concept to filter through my ossified cranium and down into the gray matter, where it could do some good.

If you have any writing experience at all, you’ve heard all this before. How I managed to avoid a confrontation with it until my mid-forties, I don’t know. Once I was drawn into the case, however, one of the first books I found helpful was Renni Browne and Dave King’s book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. The authors have been kind enough to post an on-line version of the chapter in question here.

Jeff Gerke does a workshop on this subject at writer’s conferences. He draws the distinction between showing and telling in the clearest, most easy-to-grasp manner I’ve heard to date.  That is, if it can be viewed it on a screen, movie-style, that’s showing; if not, it’s telling.

In my last post I mentioned a book I recently read, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. Lukeman argues this case too – defining the parties slightly differently, of course. But he brings out an aspect I’d never thought about before: motive. That is, the why of it all. Why is it better to show than to tell? Usually the answer I get is, Because it’s better that way. Can’t you see that?

Frankly, no. I don’t always see that. Telling can be so much more efficient, cut-to-the-chase and get-to-the-point that to me, with my practical, no-fluff mind, it can seem preferable to the often touchy-feely, round-about method of showing. Okay, so most readers – and more importantly, all publishers – prefer it; for that reason alone, I’ll do it. But I’m not quite convinced it always makes for better writing.

Then along came Lukeman, who for the first time put it all in perspective for me: among other things, showing allows the reader to make his own judgments and interpretations. That is, it provides for subtlety and ambiguity (see my post about that).  “The text becomes a mirror, a blank slate onto which readers project their own state of mind.”

Now, that makes sense. I don’t want to merely inform the reader; I want to involve her, make her think, give her something to take away and ruminate on later. We don’t always need to be in a hurry to get the point. It’s often better to give the reader time to find the point for himself.

Lukeman goes on to say: “This is what keeps the best literature endlessly fascinating.” Hey, that’s what I’m trying to create, isn’t it? Good literature, that’s truly good?

To those of quicker mind, I’m sure the reasons were always apparent. But to me, this was something of a revelation. Perhaps I was confused because we tell stories, we don’t show them. But the fact is, we do show them. At least, if we want them to be understood, we do. Understood, and digested, and assimilated, and brought to life.

The jury finds for the Plaintiff.

I should have entitled this post “Searching For a Good Book (Part III).”

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