second talk: showing and telling


Joseph Conrad said that the great ambition of fiction was to make us see. John Gardner said that fiction was like a dream from which we didn’t want to wake. I say it’s a great trip, and we want as few “buzz-killers” as possible. Showing is the “buzz.” Telling is very often the “buzz-killer.”

The bottom line: showing is just more powerful than telling. When a reader is given an image, she has a world. When he’s given a statement, he has someone’s opinion of the world. Opinions can be powerful, too, but it’s important that we, as writers, are responsible for the distinction between the two (that was, by the way, my opinion). Opinions are like pickup trucks: they carry things that we may or may not need on the trip to our destination. Images are like sports cars: they get you there fast, and they don’t carry a lot of baggage. They are also sexy.

Try this: please don’t form an image of an apple as you read this sentence.

How did that work? You want to try it again?

Okay, please don’t form an image of a brown bear. What’s the matter? Having trouble with one of your earliest assignments?

The point is that you can’t not form the image. It’s impossible. Your mind is utterly undefended against images. There is nothing more effective for getting inside your brain. That’s why it’s called “the imagination.” Now, another experiment: America is the greatest democracy the world has every known. You don’t agree with me? You do? What exactly do I mean by democracy? What exactly do I mean, for that matter, by America? Does that include South America? Central America? Where are we going with all this?

Showing is a uniter; telling is often a divider.

Okay, let’s try something slightly less freighted: Jack is a liar. Do you believe me? Maybe you do, but maybe I’m the liar and I’m lying about Jack. Maybe you don’t believe me because people used to accuse you of being a liar, and you know how hard that label is to shake. Maybe you don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be a liar. Maybe you want to know what I mean by “liar.” What exactly was Jack lying about?

Now try this: “When Laura asked about the ten dollars she’d just seen Jack take from her purse, Jack said, ‘What ten dollars?’”

The differences between this first version of Jack’s story and the second are legion, but let’s just focus on one: we saw him steal the money and we heard him lie about it. Now, the author could just be fibbing about that, too, but the point is that your mind credits the information more easily because it reached you through your imagination rather than your judgment. You have no more reason to believe Jack is a liar now than you did before, but you believe you do because you believe you saw it.

Behold the magic of fiction!

Another aspect of “showing” that’s wonderful is the way that it refuses to judge. This is not really true, of course, but it seems like it refuses to judge. When I allow you to catch Jack red handed, you have a lot more room to maneuver than when I just brand him a thief or a liar. The fiction writer is like a disingenuous and possibly malicious friend who says, “Hey, I’m not saying Jack is a thief. Maybe he tripped and fell and he just accidentally grabbed the ten dollars. I’m just telling you what I saw!” (or, as I often say to my wife: “I don’t judge, sweetheart – I only report.”) Fiction often gives you the illusion of reaching your own conclusions, but, in that, it gives you everything. It gives you story itself. It gives you a world.

Of course, there’s always a lot of telling in fiction. People who say there shouldn’t be probably don’t read much. Telling is a useful tool. It saves a lot of time, mostly. Particularly when you’ve got a lot of ground to cover – you’re writing a love story set against the background of a border conflict in Ancient Macedonia – it’s nice to be able to say “They were in the middle of a war” rather than having to show the whole damn war. Also, sometimes your reader will happily forgive you if you say, “She worked in studio development, and it was her job to see that good movies never got made” instead of showing her bringing screenwriters to tears, eviscerating good scripts, or sucking up to no-talent producers. It could be that your story is not about this, and you’d rather get to what it is about: the fact that she has had library books overdue for ten years and she can’t possibly get on with her life (and particularly that romance with the screenwriter who she made cry) until she cleans up her fines. When the whole story is taking place at the check-out desk of the public library, you might want to save yourself some time. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s a novel, and you’ve got plenty of time. And you’re longing for a flashback to ancient Macedonia.

Rules, of course, are made to be broken, and you should never be afraid to break the “show, don’t tell” rule. One of my favorite reading experiences of all time was Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison. As I remember it, most of that novella was telling. Harrison blows through whole decades of his characters’ lives in a paragraph. Did I love it? Yes, I loved it. Was it vivid? Yes, very.

The point is this: don’t ever surrender a vivid sentence for a non-vivid sentence unless you know what you’re doing. In that case, Jim Harrison knew what he was doing. If you’re going to say “produce” instead of “apples, oranges, and kiwi” you should have a good reason. If you’re going to say a character is “addicted to gambling” rather than showing him bankrupt his family on internet blackjack, let’s hope you’re serving a higher purpose. There’s never any good reason to bore anyone with fiction, but sometimes there’s good reason to get on with things.

There you go. Keep writing. Read over the earlier description of what that workbook is for in case you have forgotten. Please have fun even when it doesn’t seem like you’re having fun.


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