I’ve been thinking about the phrase “show, don’t tell” lately – the oft-given advice every writer hears at workshops, critique groups, on writers’ and editors’ blogs, and…pretty much everywhere, really.
It is good advice, on the whole. It’s much more powerful to be shown a character’s emotional reaction than told, “He felt sad.” Likewise, it’s better to have a tense dialogue interaction than simply the phrase, “The two sisters hadn’t been getting along lately,” or whatever.
On the other hand, on some level, writing is storytelling. It isn’t a film, where the action and dialogue all have to speak for themselves and no description is necessary because the audience can see the setting, the lighting and music can set the tone, and the actors’ expressions and inflections feed subtlety into the dialogue (if they’re talented actors).
To write, you must tell. The trick is to tell in such an engaging way that the audience believes you’re showing them. It’s a double-edged sword, because you don’t want to drone on and on about the setting or the way the characters look, but you also want to paint enough detail to peak the readers’ imaginations into visualizing the scenes you write. You have to walk a razor’s edge between conciseness and detail in order to immerse your reader in the story world.
One of the best ways to keep that balance is to choose your words carefully. There are many variants of a writing exercise that goes something like this: Write a scene from the point of view of a man grieving the loss of his son, without mentioning death, funerals, or the son. Now write the same scene from the same man’s point of view, in which his son is nearby, well, and healthy, again without mentioning the son. I’ve seen so many versions of this exercise, I have no idea of its origin, but it’s a great one to try the different variants of – it really gets you thinking about how to convey much with very little.
As for “telling” – well, you’ve got to tell something, or you won’t write anything down. Even if you use examples and body language to illustrate unnamed emotions or relationships, you have to tell the reader what that body language is, or what happened in that example event. At some point, you’ve got to tell your audience something!
And frankly, there are some things that should be skimmed over. You can’t be afraid to telescope when you need to, or you’ll end up writing down every damn step your character takes, like the scientist’s assistant from the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night, who announces, “I am moving my right leg, I am moving my left leg. Now I am putting this down,” while everyone is standing there watching him, like they can’t see what he’s doing! You don’t want to do that in your book, and certainly not in your short story. If the details of an event aren’t relevant, but the fact that it happened is, then skip the details and just show me the results, the outcome, the ensuing dialogue between characters who were there, etc. Tell me about that instead, and by telling the reader those things, you will show the reader the relevance of mentioning the event.
Basically, it’s another of those fine lines that writers get to try and walk so often. Like many things in life, show & tell in fiction is just one more thing you have to learn to balance.