Showing and telling

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.



2 thoughts on “Showing and telling

  1. The Brain in the Jar March 22, 2015 / 9:46 am

    Showing is harder than telling, and is also deepr. Telling us a character is angry is easy, but showing he’s angry by describing his actions is something else. By describing his actions, we’re encouraged to get from the text what we feel like. It stops being a lecture and becomes a conversation.

    There a few authors who can break this rule. Paul Auster is one fo them. He tells a lot instead of showing. I have no idea how he makes it work, but I’ve drowned in his work and I love the guy.

  2. quietlypondering March 22, 2015 / 11:17 am

    Hi Brain in the Jar

    Thanks for stopping by, and the recommendation – I’ll have to check Paul Auster out.

    In terms of the showing vs. telling dichotomy, I think it’s easy to think of a few examples where an author communicates a story brilliantly by telling (Vonnegut, and George Eliot at her best in Middlemarch come to mind for me). In fact, so much so that I think it’d be hard to communicate those same stories through showing the individual emotions, and reactions.

    As you say, there are a few authors who can break the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. I suspect what’s may be the case is that when an author ‘tells’ directly, it’s much harder to have a poorly structured narrative, or unrealistic characters. You can’t hide behind characterisation or the minutiae of a scene, if you’re just telling – the story has to be strong.

    Perhaps it is harder for novice writers to tell, rather than to show; and I’d agree, at some level it’s easier to evoke feelings when there are concrete signals (white knuckles, drawn breath). But I think in some ways it may be harder to ‘tell’ throughout a story, because if your story is weak, it’s much easier to spot.

    What do you think?


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