Monday, October 22, 2007

The Case for Tell Don't Show . . .

I may be in the minority here, but I think everyone has gone overboard with the "show, don't tell" rule.

Sure, you don't want to tell the whole story, but some telling is okay. In fact, some telling is mandatory.

To me, it is unrealistic to assume that every character shows his "feelings" through a physical or physiological manifestation. Some characters are stoic by nature. This is the purpose of interior monologue-to let the character tell his feelings from the third person p.o.v.

Not every character "shows" his feelings by a pounding heart or a tightening chest. Sometimes, in fact, many times they just think about it. How will the reader know these thoughts? The character will tell them.

Now before you write me off as a deranged lunatic, consider the following excerpt from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers ( second edition ):

We have noticed since the first edition of this book came out that a lot of
writers have taken our advice about showing and telling too much to heart. The
result has sometimes been sterile writing, consisting mostly of bare-bones
descriptions and skeletal dialogue. Yet fiction allows for marvelous
richness and depth, and nowhere more so than through interior monologue.
You have to be careful not to go overboard, but interior monologue gives you the
opportunity to invite readers into your characters' minds, sometimes to stunning

Show don't tell was originally championed to stop the barrage of amateurs who were telling their stories instead of presenting them in Novel Form.

But some telling is necessary. It is okay to write: John was disoriented or John felt confused. In fact, it is mandatory if the character - John - handles disorientation or confusion with only conscious thoughts.


Janet Rubin said...

I agree. I've been so enjoying Harry Potter (yes, Janet, we know, we know), and one of things I've noticed is that Rowling's writing is full of things I could never get away with in my crit group-- using "was" for instance. There are plenty of things like, "He felt as if..." "He thought about..." or "He knew that..."
And the story is no worse for it. Of course it isn't just Rowling. Many of the books I read have more telling/internal monologue than I am "allowed" in my own writing. What up with that?

Mark Harbeson said...

Rule #1: Just make it interesting.

Rule #2: First, learn rule #1.

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Janet, every book I read is full of no-no's. Peace Like a River is the poster book for that topic. I think Dean Koontz is very adept at it. It's always done with a purpose.

I think the litmus test should be: does it stumble the reader? Was it done out of ignorance or with a purpose?

Mark, that reminds me of the Andy Griffith Show episode where Barney gives his "Here at the Rock speach".

Rule #1: Obey all rules.

Nicole said...

Anytime a writer uses a text book to create, there's a stifling of what comes from the heart.

Rule #1: Learn the rules first.

Rule #2: Separate the trends from the rules

Rule #3: Break them all if you can make it work.

Jerry Pat Bolton said...

FINALLY!!! Someone with the fortitude to say it . . . You are correct, like so many things, we have gone overboard on this . . . I have read many, many "good" books where the authors do more narrative than dialogue and I enjoyed them immensely . . . Great! You are to be commended for sticking your neck out for the chopping block here, Dayle . . .

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Thanks, Jerry. It's good to know I'm not alone.

donna fleisher said...

Ahh, yes, but ...

The litmus test should be: is the story being told as powerfully as it can possibly be told? Sure, it may not trip up or distract a reader, but are you providing that reader with a story that is as totally ALIVE as it can be?

Sure, showing all the time is hard, and telling all the time is weak. Balance is so important. If we're totally in John's point of view, and if he is not in any other way showing the reader he is confused, then, by all means, say John was confused. But, chances are, if you've fully captured the life of his story in that moment, saying he is confused is redundant. The reader knows John is confused, cuz the reader is confused by what is happening too.

SvT is not just about finding great action beats to show confusion or any other emotion. Showing is about letting your story live, and then trusting your reader to get it without having to explain or label the emotion for them. Authors should not interpret or analyze what they see playing out. They should only show what is being expressed and trust that their reader is getting it. This is the essence of RUE. Any time an author explains what the reader already gets, the author is being redundant and intrusive. This is what trips up and distracts a reader, even if the reader doesn't know it.

Rules are not always bad. Rules are about helping a writer understand the most powerful way to paint the story's picture. Some rules will work for you, some won't. No problemo. Go with what works for you and don't worry about the rest.

And that, my friend, is the end of today's lecture. : )

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

That is a (um, several) great points, Donna. Thank you for that wonderful explanation.

You ought to talk about these things for a living. :)

As I've told you before, I love the rules because they give me a place to focus my creativity energy. They are tried and true constructs.

My point was to speak to the balance you mentioned. Although you put it far more eloquently than I ever could.

I'm still not convinced that all emotions result in an observable "show", but I certainly would err on the side of "tell" being the last resort.

By the way: If you want to hear more of Donna's insights, buy her Bringing Life to Fiction CD set. It only cost $49 + 4.95 shipping and it's worth every penny.

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

That should have read:

Bringind Fiction to Life.

Sorry, Donna.

donna fleisher said...

Eloquent smelleloquent. ; )