It was Aristotle who started the whole ‘show don’t tell’ thing. He argued that literature is better if its mode is dramatic rather than narrative, praising Homer by saying ‘he along among the poets is not ignorant of what he should do in his own person. The poet in person should say as little as possible… other poets perform in person throughout, and imitate little and seldom’. In other words, Aristotle was arguing that literature will be more effective if the thoughts, feelings and actions of characters are presented dramatically rather than narrated in an abstract way. So rather than say that Oedipus was distraught about killing his father and sleeping with his mother, we should show him beating his breast, tearing at his hair and howling like a animal.
This good advice has been passed down through each generation of writers and is the mainstay of writing groups and courses. However, great writers in great books often tell things rather than show them. So does this mean that the precept ‘show don’t tell’ is wrong? And if so, when is it OK to tell rather than show and why does it sometimes undermine the writing and other times doesn’t? I think at least part of the answer is to distinguish between ‘dramatic telling’ and ‘grammatical telling’. By ‘dramatic telling’ I mean where an idea that should be brought to life is told instead of being shown. In contrast, ‘grammatical telling’ is where the language used is ‘telling’ language, but the role that piece of telling plays is actually dramatic.
One example is the very powerful passage in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Dahl tells the reader that ‘slowly but surely, everybody in the house began to starve’. He then goes on to tell us how Charlie responds:
And now, very calmly, with that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship, he began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength. In the mornings, he left the house ten minutes earlier so that he could walk slowly to school, without ever having to run. He sat quietly in the classroom during break, resting himself, while the others rushed outdoors and threw snowballs and wrestled in the snow. Everything he did now, he did slowly and carefully, to prevent exhaustion.
This is a heart-breaking vivid account of what starvation in a developed, Western country looks like. But grammatically it is being told to us rather than being ‘shown’. Dahl doesn’t describe Charlie walking slowly or sitting inside looking out at the other children playing, he just states the actions as facts. He also doesn’t show us Charlie’s stomach ‘growling with hunger’ or Charlie ‘feeling the empty hole inside him’. Instead, he is showing us a series of actions that reflect the desperation of the situation, and allowing the reader to conjure the physical sensations Charlie must be feeling.
Chigozie Obioma uses telling in a different way in his novel The Fishermen, which is set at the end of the twentieth century in Nigeria. The father of the novel’s narrator has left to go and work in a different part of the country and refuses to take the family with him. The narrator paraphrases the father telling them why.
Yola, he reiterated, was a volatile city with a history of frequent large-scale violence especially against people of our tribe – the Igboo. We continued to push him until the bloody sectarian riots of March 1996 erupted. When finally Father got on the phone, he recounted – with the sound of sporadic shooting audible in the background – how he narrowly escaped death when rioters attacked his district and how an entire family was butchered in their house across the street from his. “Little children killed like fowls!” he’d said, placing a weighty emphasis on the phrase “little children” in such a way that no sane person could have dared mention moving to him again, and that was it.
Telling rather than showing in this section is used for two reasons. Firstly, we are told about the father’s experience rather than shown it to maintain the narrative perspective, which is that of the son rather than the father. Secondly, the aim is not to make the reader feel what it was like to be caught up in riots but to show why the father doesn’t want to bring his family to where he is living and how he communicates his reasoning. However, the violence of the riots is there as an idea informing the narrative, so that the violence that tragically afflicts the family later in the story is foreshadowed and does not feel out of place.
Another way in which authors use telling is to give the reader background information that provides context to the story, helping them engage with the unfolding drama. Phillip Roth does this in his novel Nemesis, the story of a PE teacher, Bucky Cantor, in New York and his girlfriend, Marcia, set in the 1940s during an outbreak of polio. At one point, his girlfriend phones from a summer camp where she is working.
“Now I’m sorry I came up here.” She was working for the second summer as a head counselor at Indian Hill, a camp for Jewish boys and girls in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains seventy miles from the city; during the year she was a first-grade teach at Chancellor – they’d met as new faculty members the previous fall. “It sounds awful,” she said.
This doesn’t feel like telling rather than showing because Roth is not trying to tell us how to feel, he is giving some information that enhances the drama of the scene. We’re told that ‘here’ is far from New York, a place that sounds idyllic and other worldly communicated through the connotations of the location ‘Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains’. In addition, the sense of religious community is emphasised by the fact that it is a camp for ‘Jewish boys and girls’. Finally, the youth and innocence of the couple is reinforced by the fact that she teaches first-grade and they met as new faculty members. All this enhances the drama of the current scene (the long distance phone call from safety to danger), but also stores up dramatic potential that is unleashed later in the story, when Bucky escapes to the mountain camp, but brings polio with him, crippling him and leading to the end of his relationship with Marcia. As a results he cuts himself off from the community, partly as a result of the bitterness he feels towards a God who could let children be killed and disabled by such as disease.
The lesson of these different ways of telling is that everything in a story should have a dramatic purpose, even if superficially it seems as if you are telling rather than showing. The implication of this is more hard work. Every part of a story that feels like it is slack because the reader is being told something the writer wants them to feel needs to be re-written and every bit of the story where the reader is shown something that is important but is not strictly relevant to the unfolding drama needs to be torn up and instead woven into the story as narrative in a way that maximizes its dramatic impact. Unfortunately, that’s the lot of the writer: to keep creating work for themselves until there is no more work they can wring out of the text, and it’s finished.
This was the kind of quote that I was looking for when I wrote this blog, but couldn’t find at the time:
“He’d only slept with [Sara] once, but it had been wonderful, and fulfilling…Leisurely foreplay, caressing her, had been amazing, and after he came, he had felt at peace as he held her close. But that wasn’t all there was to it. He was well aware that there was something more. Making love was a joining, a connection between one person and another. You receive something, and you also have to give.”
The quote comes from Haruki Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, and I think this kind of telling works because the relevance of the experience is what it means for another part of the narrative not in terms of the experience itself. Therefore, it would be inefficient story-telling to spend time and space dramatizing it. The point of including the passage about the love-making in the story is because of its consequences, which are then explored in the rest of the chapter and later in the novel (not least because Sara refuses to sleep with Tazaki again until he has resolved the major conflict in the book.
Murakami uses a similar technique but for a different purpose at the very start of the novel, which opens like this:
“From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying. He turned twenty during this time, but this special watershed – becoming an adult – meant nothing. Taking his own life seemed the most natural solution, and even now he couldn’t say why he hadn’t taken this final step.”
Here again, the author tells us about an experience rather than showing it, but in this case the experience is central to the novel, and in fact later on we are showed what it was like. But at this point, the brevity and starkness of the telling provokes great curiosity – why did he want to die and what did he do about it? These are the major narrative questions of the story and the telling has focused the reader’s attention on them in a precise and intense way. So as a reader one doesn’t feel cheated out of the showing. The rule I think is that telling rather than showing works when the author is deliberately not trying to evoke an experience. The telling isn’t substituting for showing, it is used for a different purpose entirely.
Go through a story or chapter you’ve written and highlight all the bits that are told and not shown. Ask of each bit, is it trying to evoke emotion or drama that is crucial to the story? Is there a compelling dramatic reason why it is better to tell this rather than show it, or is it just easier to tell it rather than spend the time working out how to show it? If the answer to both these questions is yes, then those bits need to be dramatised.
Next, go through the same story and highlight all the bits that are shown. Ask of each bit, is this part of the drama strictly necessary to the story? Could it be woven in as narrative without losing the dramatic heart; does the reader really need to be shown this bit or could they be told it without the narrative suffering in any substantial way? If the answer to these questions is yes, then those bits need to be cut out and told to the reader as context rather than being shown.