There’s an old adage in relation to writing – ‘show, don’t tell’. Which it’s interesting to reflect on, having recently finished The Rhetoric of Fiction. While it’s not his central point, Booth does discuss whether ‘show, don’t tell’ is a useful rule, and what it means.
His argument, essentially, is that when it comes to fiction, there is only telling; all fiction is telling in some form. He also argues quite persuasively that excellent fiction can involve a lot of telling, which can be a more efficient way of communicating than what we might think of as ‘showing’, which is still intentional communication (not simply a random observation).
So I was thinking about why is it that we’re told to show, not tell? There’s probably a lot of reasons – I’m not sure where the original saying came from. Based purely on conjecture, though, it seems plausible that people (readers, writers, critics) reacted against telling not because of the method, but because it was done poorly.
I think it’s quite possible that when telling is done poorly (obvious, intrusive commentary), it’s also often correlated with poor conceptualising of characters. Poor writing not in how it’s communicated, but the structure of the narrative – the psychology, if you will, of how characters react to events, how they process situations.
If that is the case, then rather than saying ‘show, don’t tell’, we should encourage good writing – what Robert McKee calls ‘from the inside out’. Writing that tells a plausible story about realistic characters (while still, as Booth would put it, having a rhetoric in the story). We should encourage people to tell the story in whatever way works, but to tell meaningful stories – to think about what it is that makes a story in terms of detailed character observation, in terms of development and character arcs.