Helen Lester in Sally mode
A Column for The Reluctant Famulus
by Gene Stewart
“Show, don’t tell.”
We hear this echoed in English composition classes. We hear it parroted in writing workshops. We hear it cited in reviews and quoted in interviews.
We rarely hear an analysis of what it means and, worse, what it does to writers who accept it unexamined and take it on board their yachts of writing ambition.
To show is to dramatize. Acting out a scent allows action to reveal what is pertinent to the story.
To tell is to narrate. Narration condenses various actions that would be dull to detail, allows discussion of character, and provides context. It is the way depth of field is added to the focus. It is how contrast is introduced. It is how theme and conflict grow.
Leaving aside description, dialogue, and other parts of fiction, we see that drama and discussion of it are the anodynes of not only good storytelling but of meaningful fiction. They are separate considerations, each depending on what function is needed at a given point in the story.
To promote one aspect of writing into dominance is to deform the writing. A given aspect of writing is to be preferred only according to the job it needs to do.
In BARRY LYNDON, Stanley Kubrick makes each frame a lush painting. He also paces the action slowly, the way things unfolded back then. To emphasize this, he dramatizes coach rides rather than narrating them. To a modern viewer, watching Ryan O’Neil ride along for twenty minutes jostled by pitted dirt roads in a horse-drawn carriage as richly green countryside goes by in the window is boring. Worse, it makes many viewers impatient and takes them out of the story, collapsing their suspension bride of disbelief and dropping them in a river of uncaring.
While true to the times depicted, such intervals of dramatized travel seem to howl for the narrative scene cut.
For stark contrast, see Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which is nearly all showing with very little telling, unlike the superb Anthony Burgess novel on which it’s based, where the mix is more balanced.
Then there is the action/adventure genre in movies. TRANSPORTER, TAKEN, and the Daniel Craig CASINO ROYALE strike views as headlong roller-coasters of action. THE BOURNE IDENTITY shoves Matt Damon through the dense action scenes so frenetically, using a mobile, jostled camera to heighten the effect, that it left many viewers nauseated from motion sickness.
These were examples of show, don’t tell translated to the screen. All action, precious little dialogue, plot, or narration. What little exposition exists in such films is delivered obliquely in gruff monosyllables.
Then there are character studies. ROSEMARY’S BABY offers little action, placing the drama psychologically and presenting it in naturalistic narration. We watch a vivacious young bride go through mundane days as slowly a doom shadows her. It is not slam-bang action sequences, it is not acting things out, it is, instead, a thoughtful narration of her circumstance, gradually elaborated until we understand.
Such choices affect the quality of fiction.
Genre fiction is meant first and foremost to entertain. It stands before an audience promising a good time. If the multi-level accomplishment of actual entertainment cannot be reached, momentary diversion suffices. If even that fails, distraction waits in the wings like stooges of old, ready to wake up a nodding audience and shake up a somnolent cast with frantic chaos.
“When in doubt, have a gun go off,” Raymond Chandler advised, contrasting Anton Chekov’s advice that, “If you show a gun in act one, it must go off by the end of act two, or your third act is ruined.” Please note that Chandler, who ad-libbed tough-guy prose poetry, famously failed to keep track of his own plots, not even knowing how many corpses there were or who killed whom or why. He’s famous for tone. For a genius like Chandler, tone was enough.
H. P. Lovecraft is another tone writer, while Arthur Conan Doyle was both a tone and atmosphere writer. Note that such pens work mostly in narration rather than dramatizing much. Sherlock Holmes stories, some of the most perpetually popular ever written, are almost all tell, with little show.
Hemingway wrote in passive voice, past tense narrative almost exclusively and dramatized almost nothing. Trained as a reporter, he simply reported things. He is the most influential writer of his generation and continues to be.
We now begin to see that “Show, don’t tell,” is senseless advice if a writer is paying attention to what function is needed for a given passage. One suspects this advice arose from an attempt to keep neophyte writers on the mark. If a would-be writer does not know what scenes to narrate and which to dramatize, they tend to fall into a flat drone that tramples all interest. They are not storytellers, they are not writers, they are blind to opportunities for acting out genuine clash and conflict. Their sense of drama is muted, if there at all, so their work lacks interest.
Variety is the spike of vampires. Surely Bram Stoker understood drama, having worked as a theater producer most of his life. He knew killing Lucy in the novel Dracula was a scene fraught with intense conflict, deep meaning, and hair-raising horror. Show, don’t tell such a scene by all means, and oh how he did.
In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, we do not see Scrooge on stage earning his millions. We do see acted out Bob Cratchit freezing on his stool as he works away on Scrooge’s ledger. Dickens has a master’s eye for emphasizing drama, conflict, and context. He knew how to choose show or tell to fit the purpose of each scene.
Dickens never saw a movie. He did see, produce, act in, and greatly enjoy theater, however. He even wrote plays. His awareness of how to use a limited stage to enhance drama is on full display in Oliver Twist when Sikes murders Nancy. It is also turned to an incredible level of sophisticated flourish when the vile lawyer Tulkinghorn is murdered in Bleak House. The scenes are, once read, unforgettable.
To make a scene resonate, know what to show, and what to tell. While separate considerations, they usually occur simultaneously in fiction. Go read a passage from almost any of the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. Pay attention to her sentences. She has an interesting way of showing action in each sentence while also adding in thoughts and feelings, which is telling. She interweaves these things to give depth and add interest.
Her adult works such as The Cuckoo’s Calling are recommended for fine writing and bravura plotting and presentation.
Next time you hear the echo of “Show, don’t tell,” remember that it’s incomplete advice at best, little more than a post-it note to remind you to think through what you’re putting down in words. Pay attention to vocal tone, atmosphere, description, and dialogue, yes, but always for a solid foundation decide whether what you’re writing in that scene needs more acting out, or more explanation for context. It will almost always be a mix but you’ll know which to emphasize.
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