Dilemma: “Show, don’t tell”

“Show, don’t tell.” It must be one of the fundamental principles of good fiction. It’s been quoted at me countless times in critiques of my writing, and it’s a criticism I personally make of various works fairly often. I’d like to explore in this post whether “show, don’t tell” as a principle is really as crucial to good fiction as it’s made out to be, or whether there are flaws in its premise.

What is “show, don’t tell”?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the phrase, it’s meant to remind writers that their job isn’t simply to describe to their reader a series of events; it’s to guide readers through a story that the writer is helping to construct in the reader’s head. This is the magic of art; that every piece is consumed by an individual in a totally unique way to another. I think this is especially true for fiction, which requires a whole lot of imagination on the part of the reader. When a writer deliberately forces the reader to draw their own conclusions, leaves some things unsaid, or lets a character’s actions speak for themselves, this is showing, not telling. It’s giving the reader a starting place, a jumping-off point, forcing the reader to pick up the rest. The result is the same story, but imagined in a completely different way for every reader. It’s why, I believe, movie adaptations of books are never as good as the book; it’s impossible to match the unique story that every reader of the book has already formed themselves.

What does “show, don’t tell” look like then, in practise? Here’s a simple example from my own writing:

“What would you do, Rory?” he sighed to himself. He didn’t need an answer. He already knew what it was.

I could’ve just stated the answer by writing something like “Jason already knew that Rory would do the same” but it doesn’t have the same effect. Intentionally leaving this question unanswered for the reader draws them in, requiring them to think for themselves about Rory and what they know of his character, how he might think about what Jason is doing. It invites the reader to work through the same mental process Jason has so that they arrive at the same place he does.

So, to me, “show, don’t tell” is primarily about respecting the reader. It’s trusting that the reader will understand what you want them to, or reach the conclusion you want them to without you explicitly telling them how to get there. But it’s also accepting that you cannot control how exactly your writing will be consumed by others and that therein lies the beauty. Show the reader what you want them to see, let them react to it, interpret it, feel something about it themselves, and the story will be far greater than anything you could ever tell.

A Counter

Image result for the luminaries

Although I understand the concept of “show, don’t tell”, I do grapple with it as a mantra for writing. Much of that grappling I can easily put down to my own inexperience as a writer, learning what works and what doesn’t and how my writing can improve. But I see great writers telling rather than showing all the time; the most recent example I’ve seen of this is in the book I have just finished reading: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. In my opinion it is a masterpiece, absolutely deserving of the Man Booker Prize it won in 2013. It is a complex novel, with a range of brilliantly diverse and well-developed main characters, and one of the ways Catton gives such life to them is in the way she essentially tells the reader the exact nature of each; below is an extract in which the character of Te Rau Tauwhare, a pounamu hunter, is told to the reader in detail:

In general Tauwhare’s conception of prayer was restricted to the most ritualised and oratorical sort. The ordered obeisance of the whaikorero produced in him, as did all rituals of speech and ceremony, a feeling of centrality and calm, the likes of which he could not manufacture alone, and nor did he wish to. The sensation was quite distinct from the love he felt for his family, which he experienced as a private leaping in his breast, and distinct, too, from the pride he felt in himself, which he felt as a pressurised excitement, an elated certainty that no man would ever match him, and no man would ever dare to try. It ran deeper than the natural goodness he felt, watching his mother shuck mussels and pile the slippery meat into a wide-mouthed flax basket on the shore, and knowing, as he watched her, that his love was good, and wholly pure; it ran deeper than the virtuous exhaustion he felt after a day of stacking the rua kumara, or hauling timber, or plaiting harakeke until the ends of his fingers were pricked and raw. Te Rau Tauwhare was a man for whom the act of love was the true religion, and the altar of this religion was one in place of which no idols could be made.

This, to me, is blatant, unashamed telling. From reading it, I have an incredibly clear understanding of Tauwhare; I have a sense of his own personal spirituality, I know what he values, I know what drives him. And these important character points are never really shown throughout the novel; we never see Tauwhare’s mother, we never witness the sensation of calm he feels in whaikōrero. Instead, Catton just comes straight out and gives the reader this beautifully written prose in which she tells us more about Tauwhare than we ever actually see of him, and she does this for each of the other eleven main characters in the story. The result is a series of long, winding passages describing in detail the complexities of each character, but I found it works tremendously in the novel’s favour; it allows the reader to have a detailed understanding of each character that provides context for everything that happens in the rest of the novel. Each time these characters interact we understand their motives, we understand how they will process information, why they reacted a certain way – which allows us to construct those interactions more meaningfully in our own heads. In my opinion, what Catton does is “necessary telling”; she tells us valuable information to enable her to show more effectively later on. She equips the reader with the knowledge necessary to really understand her story – and she does this by telling, not showing.

My own example

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Cover art for “Children of the Mist”

This is my dilemma as a writer, that I am reaching the point where I think – in the right circumstances – telling is unavoidable, because, like in The Luminaries, it can serve an important purpose. Yet that is contrary to the overwhelming opposition I have personally experienced when it comes to telling in fiction.

I was once challenged about a part of my short story, “Children of the Mist”, where the characters are discussing Patupaiarehe (the fairy-like people who end up hunting them). This conversation served a specific and important purpose – to provide the reader with enough information (not all of it accurate) to understand what happens to the characters later in the story. Now, this particular technique is an obvious example of exposition, which I view as essentially a means of skirting the “show, don’t tell” principle; exposition is the provision of relevant information in a way that is supposed to seem natural. It might be world-building information, or important backstory. Often exposition is obvious to spot and can be a barrier to a reader suspending belief enough to enjoy the story. When done poorly, exposition can come across as something like telling badly disguised as showing; instead of the writer just telling rather than showing vital information, they’re just getting one of their own characters to tell the information instead. Basically, just because an example of telling is in “speech marks” doesn’t mean it’s not still telling.

When I indulged in exposition in this example, however, I did so with a clear understanding that that’s what I was doing, but also that it was essential to the overall story. Spoiler: the ultimate conclusion of this story is that the narrator is half-Patupaiarehe. For me, this was the most terrifying aspect of the Patupaiarehe and the key terror I wanted to get across; that they are not so different from us and, according to our own oral histories, some us may well be descended from these beings that some consider monsters. It was crucial that the reader reach that conclusion on their own; I could not simply tell them that this was the point of the story because it would lessen the impact. So I tried to balance the effect of telling at one point in the story to enable me to show, not tell, at the point where I thought it mattered most.

I had thought about the alternatives: how else could I ensure the reader has that vital information (that Patupaiarehe can produce hybrid offspring with humans) so they can reach the conclusion I want them to at the end (that the narrator is one of these hybrids – Urukehu). I considered there were two options:

  1. Find a way to weave this vital information into the narration of the story; or
  2. Not provide the information at all.

Option 1 seemed an even worse transgression against the “show, don’t tell” principle than what I had gone with. Because the narrator is also one of the main characters, and his voice is the reader’s window to the story, any instance where he discusses Urukehu or Patupaiarehe reproducing with humans is essentially telling the reader what they need to know as well. I preferred to diminish the impact of this necessary telling – as I considered it – by giving that information to another character to provide through dialogue (or exposition). It seemed more natural for another character to say it as part of a conversation rather than the narrator.

I didn’t like Option 2, either, because I felt like the reader absolutely needed this information for the twist to land. The reader needed to know that Patupaiarehe-human hybrids were a “thing” in my story, even if that piece of information was only given fleetingly, in one small moment. If I did not give that information at all, I did not think it would be likely for the reader to reach the conclusion I wanted them to about the narrator’s heritage – short of a weird Darth Vader “I am your father” moment from the Patupaiarehe, that is. And that was the added difficulty with finding an appropriate way to provide the vital information; to be true to the representation of Patupaiarehe in my story, they needed to be elusive, mysterious. Much of what makes them so frightening is that they aren’t visible. Their actual presence in the story needed to be minimal, which means an “I am your father” moment from them just wasn’t going to work.

In the end I decided I’d made the right decision; I left it unclear at first glance why the Patupaiarehe spared the narrator’s life, yet if you picked up on some of the clues scattered throughout the story – including the vital tidbit that Patupaiarehe-human hybrids were possible – then you might realise the reason I thought the narrator was spared. Or you might not, having come up with your own reason that turns out better than the one I intended. Perhaps I wasn’t trusting enough of the reader, and perhaps I told too much. But I maintain that what I did was right for the story I wanted to tell – and I think that point sums up my view on the matter; as a writer I am a story teller, not a story show-er.

Let me tell you a story…

frustrated tom hiddleston GIF

It seems implicit to me that writers are, by the very nature of their craft, tellers and not show-ers. It’s quite different to visual arts where a story is literally shown to an audience. If you take a step back from literary elitism and take an objective look at a book as a vehicle for art, it’s a storytelling device. A book doesn’t show a reader anything; it quite literally tells a story through words on a page.

I think the distinction that needs to be made is less about showing, not telling, than it is about telling only what needs to be told. As in the example of The Luminaries, I think it is perfectly acceptable for a writer to simply tell readers what they want readers to know on the condition that it serves a purpose. I still believe in the underlying intent of “show, don’t tell”, which is to respect the reader, guide them – don’t direct them – to the conclusions you want them to reach. But I think what’s missing is the need to empower the reader, to appropriately equip them with the knowledge or the tools needed to construct their unique version of the story they are reading. If I, as a writer, need to just tell the reader something in order to achieve that goal, then that’s what I will do. I’m obviously no Eleanor Catton nor a Man Booker Prize winner, but her unreserved telling in a Man Booker Prize winning novel kind of proves to me that showing, not telling, does not automatically equal good fiction. As with many things, I think what makes good fiction is simply a matter of balance.

Of course, the other great thing about art is that it’s all subjective anyway, so I’m interested to know what other people think – if you have thoughts or want to discuss any of my points, feel free to comment below!

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