Not long ago, a colleague posted a link on our professional editors’ listserv to a blog post titled “Why ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is the Big Myth of Fiction Writing.”
Naturally I clicked through. “Show, don’t tell” is to writers what “Smile!” is to figure skaters: an admonishment repeated so often nobody questions it. Is it a myth? Can a salchow get full marks if the skater frowns? Is a writer allowed to tell, not show?
In the second case, absolutely, the blog’s author says, and she explains each term. Telling gives readers information. Showing “conveys evocative, visceral, detailed imagery” that lets them visualize the characters in a situation. Writing requires both tell and show.
But then she gives these examples:
Telling: After walking for miles, Emily was exhausted and hungry and stopped at a farmhouse. When the farmer offered her breakfast, she gratefully sat down at the table and enjoyed every bite.
Showing: Emily’s weakened body trembled as she pulled her chair closer to the stranger’s table. Her nostrils quivered as the smoky aroma of bacon wafted upward, and she almost swooned as the rumbling in her stomach amplified. Plunging her fork into a glistening egg yolk, she crammed it into her mouth as the farmer observed her with a gentle smile. I couldn’t have gone another step, she thought, glancing shyly at the stranger and marveling at her good fortune at discovering his farmhouse.
The trouble is that neither example shows. The second contains more details, but it’s tell, tell, tell.
Here’s a passage written by an author unrivaled in her ability to show:
The sun came out after the war and our world went Technicolor. Everyone had the same idea. Let’s get married. Let’s have kids. Let’s be the ones who do it right.
It is possible, in 1962, for a drive to be the highlight of a family week. King of the road, behind the wheel on four steel-belted tires, the sky’s the limit. Let’s just drive, we’ll find out where we’re going when we get there. How many more miles, Dad?
. . .
In the back seat, Madeleine leans her head against the window frame, lulled by the vibrations. Her older brother is occupied with baseball cards, her parents are up front enjoying “the beautiful scenery.” This is an ideal time to begin her movie. She hums “Moon River,” and imagines that the audience can just see her profile, hair blowing back in the wind. They see what she sees out the window, the countryside, off to see the world, and they wonder where it is she is off to and what life will bring, there’s such a lot of world to see. They wonder, who is this dark-haired girl with the pixie cut and the wistful expression? An orphan? An only child with a dead mother and a kind father? Being sent from her boarding school to spend the summer at the country house of mysterious relatives who live next to a mansion where lives a girl a little older than herself who rides horses and wears red dungarees? We’re after the same rainbow’s end, just around the bend. . . . And they are forced to run away together and solve a mystery, my Huckleberry friend. . . .
In the opening pages of The Way The Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald paints a scene so vivid we are rocketed into the backseat of the McCarthy family sedan. We can see the ’53 Studebaker Coupe whiz past the open window, hear the radio crackle, feel the late summer sun on our skin, smell the optimism of the postwar era. With minimal telling on MacDonald’s part, by the end of three pages, this reader had formed a clear mental picture of the book’s protagonist, Madeleine, her brother and dad with their matching crewcuts, her elegant French-speaking mother, and the family dynamic.
Her theatre background taught MacDonald to plunge into the core of a scene. Or so she told a roomful of writing students gathered in a classroom in UVic’s Cornett Building to hear her read from her new novel.
Before you rush out to your local independent bookstore to buy her new novel, it was 2003. I was the keener in the front row listening with my eyes closed. (Leona points out that I’m always the keener in the front row. I’d deny it if it weren’t so obviously, embarrassingly true. Frankly, MacDonald is my hero. She is to writing what Piet Oudolf is to garden design: bold, dramatic, masterful, evocative.)
Arlene Prunkl, in the blog post I linked above, gives an excellent list of techniques to improve one’s writing through showing. Her examples demonstrate how hard they can be to execute.
At the same time, they illuminate the value of showing over telling. The best way to learn how to show is to read great books and pay attention to how your heroes do it.
Is “show, don’t tell” a myth? No. It’s a gold standard, like a triple axel or Elvis Stojko’s quadruple-double. To execute it flawlessly, a writer has to read and practice, practice and read. Smiling is optional.
By the way, if you happen to see Ann-Marie MacDonald, please tell her 11 years is a long enough wait. Her fans are ready for her next book, please.