I receive e-mails from Jerry Jenkins about writing because I apparently made a mistake at some point and signed up for them. Today he hit on a triggering topic for me: the rule, “Show, don’t tell.”
To his credit he does say, “Yes, it’s a mistake to take show, don’t tell as inviolable. While summary narrative is largely frowned upon, sometimes it’s a prudent choice. If there’s no value to the plot/tension/conflict/character arc by showing some mundane but necessary information, telling is preferable.” But he spends the rest of the e-mail saying the same tired things about how a writer’s purpose is to show a story, not tell it.
Ignoring the fact that no successful writer I care about actually adheres to this rule, let’s just notice that we do indeed call it story-telling, and that we call movies “shows”. Television shows. A stage performance is a “show”. Books are not shows. Books are told, and this fact is utterly inescapable. Let’s look at one of Mr. Jenkins’s examples.
Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun.
Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun reflecting off the street.
Obviously, the second sentence is better in almost any circumstance, which is the point. I get it. But this isn’t a matter of showing versus telling. The very premise of the argument is all wrong. Why are we telling the audience in the second sentence that Bill’s nose burned? Couldn’t we rather demonstrate that burning in some other way? We could. And we could demonstrate that next thing, which demonstrates the burning, in some other way as well. Why are we telling the audience that the Sun reflected off the street? Couldn’t we demonstrate that in some other way? Instead of simply telling the reader that the Sun reflected off the street we could show it perhaps by, well, saying anything more about it than just that. We could tell the reader quite a lot about that glint of sunlight if we wanted.
Notice what I did in that last sentence.
What we call “showing” is always only just telling something in terms of other things. The second example is “showing” in relation to the simpler statement, but is itself necessarily only telling.
More, maybe the reader doesn’t need to care about the state of Bill’s nose. By all means find a more interesting sentence than the first example, but we don’t need to pretend that this is a movie. Yes, the book is better than the movie because the reader has additional powers of imagination available — they’re demanded, in fact. But the book is not better than the movie because it imitates the movie so well it somehow becomes a better movie than the movie itself. Do you see how backwards this is?
But let’s get some concrete examples here to make my point perfectly clear.
From The Hobbit:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
O.M.G. How “telly” can you get? And it practically never ends. I’ll use a bit of bibliomancy and open to a random page.
Now you can understand why Gandalf, listening to their growling and yelping, began to feel that they were in a very bad place, and had not yet escaped at all. All the same, he was not going to let them have it all their own way, though he could not do very much stuck up in a tall tree with wolves all round on the ground below.
It continues. Beautifully. Masterfully. Tolkien does not show. Tolkien, one of the most widely admired writers of our time, defies this “rule” on pretty much every page of every book he has ever written.
And he is not an exception.
From The Jungle Book, a bit more bibliomancy:
An Indian grazing-ground is all rocks and scrub and tussocks and little ravines, among which the herds scatter and disappear. The buffaloes generally keep to the pools and muddy places, where they lie wallowing or basking in the warm mud for hours.
I literally just opened the book and started transcribing without confirming my point beforehand, so much faith I had that Rudyard Kipling — also a literary giant — most certainly would not be “showing.”
Onward and upward. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
Harry moved in front of the tank and looked intently at the snake. He wouldn’t have been surprised if it had died of boredom itself — no company except stupid people drumming their fingers on the glass trying to disturb it all day long. It was worse than having a cupboard as a bedroom, where the only visitor was Aunt Petunia hammering on the door to wake you up; at least he got to visit the rest of the house.
Let’s do one more from this book.
Harry watched the girl and her mother disappear as the train rounded the corner. Houses flashed past the window. Harry felt a great leap of excitement. He didn’t know what he was going to — but it had to be better than what he was leaving behind.
J.K. Rowling’s popularity and great success as a writer are a testament to her status as a master story-teller. Again, I’m not even cherry picking. This is still pure bibliomancy.
On to something completely different. George Orwell’s 1984:
She had had her first love affair when she was sixteen, with a Party member of sixty who later committed suicide to avoid arrest.
I knew Mr. Orwell wouldn’t let me down. Now, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
Dorothy wept bitterly at the passing of her hope to get home to Kansas again; but when she thought it all over she was glad she had not gone up in a balloon. And she also felt sorry at losing Oz, and so did her companions.
I don’t need a second example from this one, do I? Onward, now, to The Lord of the Flies, which is the only book on this list I haven’t actually read:
No one said anything but the faces turned to Ralph were intent. He flourished the conch. He had learnt as a practical business that fundamental statements like this had to be said at least twice before everyone understood them. One had to sit, attracting all eyes to the conch, and drop words like heavy round stones among the little groups that crouched or squatted. He was searching his mind for simple words so that even the littluns would understand what the assembly was about. Later perhaps, practiced debaters — Jack, Maurice, Piggy — would use their whole art to twist the meeting, but now at the beginning the subject of the debate must be laid out clearly.
Admittedly, an example in this one book had required a bit of a search, but still it was readily found.
Now, Piers Anthony, Bearing an Hourglass:
Norton was growing quite curious about this. The ghost was a tough, direct sort, with quite alien values, but he was also a gentleman by his own reckoning.
Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic:
One interesting side effect of the fire in Ankh-Morpork concerns the inn-sewer-ants policy, which left the city through the ravaged roof of the Broken Drum, was wafted high into the Discworld’s atmosphere on the ensuing thermal, and came to earth several days and a few thousand miles away on an uloruaha bush in the beTrobi islands. The simple, laughing islanders subsequently worshipped it as a god, much to the amusement of their more sophisticated neighbors. Strangely enough the rainfall and harvests in the next few years were almost supernaturally abundant, and this led to a research team being dispatched to the islands by the Minor Religions faculty of Unseen University. Their verdict was that it only went to show.
I’m not letting up or slowing down. Lowis Lowry’s The Giver:
It was almost December and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.
At first, he had only been fascinated. He had never seen an aircraft so close, for it was against the rules for Pilots to fly over the community.
The speech was much the same each year: recollection of the time of childhood and the period of preparation, the coming responsibilities of adult life, the profound importance of Assignment, the seriousness of training to come.
Mike Resnick, A Miracle of Rare Design:
His assignment this time was simple and straightforward. The nine hundred human colonists on Monticello IV had come down with a wasting disease, a virus carried by the microscopic snail-like flukes that lived and bred in their water supply…
C.S. Friedman, This Alien Shore:
For a moment he said nothing. The chemistry in the room had changed, and with a startling suddenness. The girl who looked back at him now with defiance bright in her eyes was a whole different creature than the one he had just been questioning.
Again C.S. Friedman. Black Sun Rising:
The hill was some distance from town, and not easy to climb. Which was why it was empty of tourists, despite its position overlooking the water. It took her some time to reach the top, and when at last she did she rested for a moment, trying to catch her breath.
John Brunner, The Crucible of Time:
When northern summer ceased, the weight of ice leaned hard on those gnarled rocks which fearful wanderers had named The Guardians of the Pole.
Few were the mariners who braved the channel they defined; fewer still the ones who returned to tell of a colossal valley surrounding a land-locked sea so salt that what ordinarily ought to sink there was buoyed up. It was a foul and poisoned zone, though life still endured.
Okay, I’m done now, but I could obviously keep going. The rule “show, don’t tell,” is not only logically incoherent, it is widely disregarded by the masters of this craft called story-telling. “Show, don’t tell,” is a big fat lie. If one were to try to adhere to it perfectly, she would find herself wholly immobilized, as anything she says could in some way be described in more detail, by which I mean described in terms of other things she would have to simply tell the reader without explanation. The rule “Show, don’t tell,” is subject to the problem of infinite regress because it is founded on the faulty premise that showing is distinct from telling. It is not. But far beyond the simple logic of it, using a more practical, (incoherent) limited definition of the terms, we have ample empirical evidence of extraodinarily successful writers “telling” rather than “showing.”
Bring your writing to life. Do that. Please. But please, please don’t succumb to the pressure to try to write your story as though it were a movie; it is not a movie, and good for it, too. The book is always better for a reason, and that reason lies in the differences of the two story-telling media.
Tell the damn story. Draw your reader into it. Give it some color. Breathe some life into it. Do not hamper yourself with this paralyzing mind virus.
And please kindly disregard Jerry Jenkins.