Show or Tell?

In a recent post Sean Stiennon mulls over the perennial issue of showing vs. telling with his usual wit and concision.

What he said got me thinking, and one of the things that occurred to me was that the oft-cited commandment “Show, don’t tell” is absolutely correct, but sometimes wrong. Sometimes it’s better to tell than show. Narrative should be as vivid as possible (showing) but exposition should be sneaky and quick as possible, which is where telling comes in. It’s unfair to the readers to clutter exposition with all sorts of vein-popping detail when they (hopefully) want to get on to the battle scene where Velfnarth the Embittered smites the Evil Master of Zeppelins with his Point├ęd Stick. (Or on to the heart-wrenching scene where Velfnarth gives up his dream of vengeance to save a helpless kitten, or on to whatever the story is going to be about.)

I have a bad example of showing and a good example of telling from the same story, Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. In the second part of the novella, Conan Doyle wastes 15000-some words drearily documenting the backstory of the murderer and his motive, when he could have sketched in the motive in a few dozen words. “Showing” is no good unless it serves to bring the narrative forward. For shame, Doctor! In the last chapter of Study, though, the murderer sketches in his motive in a few dozen words (“It don’t much matter to you why I hated these men…; it’s enough that they were guilty of the death of two human beings — a father and daughter — and that they had, therefore, forfeited their own lives.”). A lesser writer might have wasted 15000-some words on this project. Bravo, Doctor! When I read that chapter I thought this Conan Doyle and his detective hero might really hit the big time, and I think someone mentioned to me recently that they did.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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7 Responses to Show or Tell?

  1. sartorias says:

    Yeah….it’s all the the voice–and also being able to intuit when the reader really wants lots of info, and when a line or two will do just as well, if not better.

  2. kythiaranos says:

    The thing I’ve noticed, reading slush, is that some beginning writers have grasped the concept of showing, but they don’t know *which* details to show to move the story forward. I see some that are all telling–synopses of stories that ought to be longer. And most of these others are catalogs of detail–what the character had for breakfast, for instance, or how green the grass is–details that aren’t really vivid or unique, and don’t move the story forward.

    • JE says:

      what the character had for breakfast, for instance, or how green the grass is–details that aren’t really vivid or unique, and don’t move the story forward.

      Yes, it took me a long time to realize that other people had seen sunsets, walked in woods, watched storms etc. and they didn’t need me to tell them about this stuff.

      Reading a slush pile must be very hard. Last spring I read 3 or 4 stories a week for about 10 weeks from the Baen’s Universe Slush conference, and it was really an eye-opening (or maybe I mean elbow-biting) experience. I can’t even imagine clearing away dozens (or hundreds!) of stories in a reasonable stretch of time.

      • Anonymous says:

        Depending on a market’s slush policy, a lot of it can be rejected after reading a page (sometimes a lot less). It’s not a job I’d want, though. When I reach the point where I don’t like anything I’m writing, I dig up some blog entry where a slush reader vented. Always entertaining.

      • kythiaranos says:

        Yes, it took me a long time to realize that other people had seen sunsets, walked in woods, watched storms etc. and they didn’t need me to tell them about this stuff.

        It can be of value to talk about sunsets, if there’s something important about *that* sunset, that will affect the story, or reveal something about the character–and if it can be described so that the reader sees it from a new angle.

        A good principle I’ve been trying to apply recently, is the idea that every element in the story should serve at least two purposes. So nothing’s there solely for the purpose of looking pretty.

        Reading a slush pile must be very hard.

        It has its moments. But it’s been so instructive for me as a writer that it’s worth the annoyance. So many times I’ve seen guidelines that say, ‘And don’t send us X.’ Now I know why. You really, really can read too many vampire/cat/dead spouse/evil child/whatever stories. I should do a post about what I’ve seen too often.

  3. jordan179 says:

    In science fiction and fantasy, a lot may depend upon background. If the action takes place on another planet, in the far future, or in a magical world, the writer may need to do some exposition before anything going on is at all meaningful to him.

    There are ways of doing this “showing” that are entertaining. Tolkien explained a lot about his world in The Hobbit by direct narration to the reader, and in Lord of the Rings by having more informed characters tell the tales to the less informed characters (avoiding the “As You Know, Bob” problem by having these conversations occur between people from different cultures). Lovecraft made the scholarly investigations into what was really going on an inherent and suspenseful part of his tales set on Earth, and used intentionally florid and insinuating description at length in his Dreamlands tales. “Doc” Smith used energetic, detailed exposition. Isaac Asimov made use of extracts from the Encyclopedia Galactica in his Foundation stories. Poul Anderson sometimes started chapters with planetological surveys. Jack Vance wrote entertaining travel brochures for the worlds of the Gaean Reach.

    The point is, it has to be done well enough that it engages the reader’s interest while conveying the necessary information. Badly done exposition is artificial (“As you know, Bob” techniques being the worst offenders) or boring (nobody wants to read a badly written expository lump). But if done well, it seriously enhances the novel.

    The “plunge right in without explicit exposition approach currently favored works just fine if done well, but if done poorly leaves the readers puzzled as to what the heck is going on, a puzzlement that can result in their losing interest before reading enough to pick up on all the clues.

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