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 Pointéd 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.