9/26/15 – Tell, Don’t Show
Show, don’t tell is such an axiom of creative writing programs, and indeed of advice given to writers in general, that it is rarely questioned. The most recent author to visit the university program where I teach, for example, gave this advice to our students—and of course it’s sound, especially for the beginning writer, who is much more likely to err on the wrong side, of summary and exposition, including so few scenes that the writing remains dull. No less a master of fiction than Joseph Conrad said that the novelist’s task was to make the reader see, and who can doubt that that entails writing dramatic scenes most of the time? All the same, I have been pondering this question a good deal lately, and would like to share my reflections on why “show, don’t tell” has become such an unchallenged axiom—indeed an almost sacred Commandment—particularly in the United States, and what interesting alternatives to this strategy there might be.
First, then, what is the reason for the popularity of the maxim? In part, obviously, it’s simply that good fiction writers, since Cervantes at least, have understood that to be able to put the reader into a vivid dramatic scene is one of the keys, if not the key, to a novel’s success. But I think there are additional reasons why it has become the orthodoxy in the States. For a start, American fiction, notwithstanding the great nineteenth writers like Hawthorn, Poe and Melville, really came of age—by which I mean established its own voice—in the early twentieth century with the constellation of great novelists of the interwar years: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Steinbeck in particular. And these years coincided with the rise of the cinema as the most popular art form. The influence of films on novels is everywhere apparent, from techniques like jump cuts—you need no transitions in movies, because the visual medium makes the new scene’s context apparent at once—to establishing shots, panning shots, close-ups and fades, all of which have their equivalent in fiction. But the main advantage of cinema over art forms is its extreme vividness: so much sensory information can be packed in in such a short time, and no description is necessary. If a scene is filmed right, we feel as if we are there; and even in the era of silent movies, directors were already making use of actor’s gestures, and close-ups of their facial expressions, to express meaning, besides the dialogue, which was given in short bursts. Early inventive directors like Buñuel were making use of surrealistic techniques to show the inner states of their characters too (as for instance when a character’s face is covered with insects.) I am not sure that literary fiction writers deliberately copied any of these techniques, but there’s no question that the craft of the new art infiltrated that of its elder sibling.
And then, around the time of the Second World War, came the next great influence on American literature: the rise of the writing programs, with the University of Iowa’s program as the first and still the model for most of the rest. This began a revolution in how writers were trained. Before, writers taught themselves how to write by reading published authors; if they were lucky, and lived in a capital city, or were able to move to one, they were sometimes able to join a literary clique, often based in cafes, and learn from the authors themselves, as youthful disciples who had their work critiqued by their elders. (Hemingway’s Moveable Feast makes it clear that he received his education this way, principally at the hands of Gertrude Stein, who took him under her motherly wing as a protégé, but also in the friendships he made there with Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, and others.) But from about 1950 it became increasingly common for American writers to learn formally from other writers in a graduate degree program, and by 1980 or so this had become the usual route to learning the craft for most. And there was a very good reason that “show, don’t tell” became the first principle of the writing programs. Not only could it be taught easily, but also, if done competently, it at least eliminated most of the truly dreadful, amateurish writing that consisted mostly of characters’ thoughts and feelings about their tragic problems—the solipsistic and narcissistic ramblings that still plague so much student writing.
The results have been mixed. One the one hand, few would disagree that the American short story in the second half of the twentieth century is second to none. And much of the credit must go to the writing programs, who after all educated Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, if not John Cheever or Alice Munro. There is an astonishing galaxy of talent in American short fiction, and the vividness and the drama which “show, don’t tell” have engendered have played a vital part in creating that richness. But what of the novel? Certainly there have been first-rate North American novelists in this period, although the greatest, such as Bellow, Roth, Morrison and Atwood, were not the products of MFA programs. Nevertheless, they imbibed the adages of the programs, whether subconsciously or through studying writers’ pronouncements on craft, for instance in the Paris Review interviews (one of the great resources for journeyman writers). On the whole—I’m generalizing—American novels are told mostly in scene, and they are vivid and dramatic. I don’t think anyone would argue that American novels aren’t well-crafted, and yet, if we look at the current crop of prominent US novelists—I mean those whose literary fiction goes straight to the bestseller lists, like Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Donna Tartt, George Saunders, and Michael Chabon—I think that for all the talent and technical competence they show, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that their work is narrow and provincial by comparison with that of the great novelist of the twenties and thirties, or indeed with that of Bellow, Roth, DeLillo, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. One has to wonder whether, for all their gifts, these writers don’t have much to say. I’m not sure if it’s their fault of the limitation of the show-don’t-tell conventional novel (or story). But it’s worth at least considering the latter possibility.
In fact, when you consider the greatest twentieth century fiction writers, it becomes clear that many of them have excelled in less dramatic, but on the other hand, more philosophical, contemplative writing, that resorts to much more exposition and summary. Here are just a few of the names who spring to mind: Kafka, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch and Hermann Hesse (particularly the later Hesse, for instance in The Glass Bead Game). Milan Kundera too, surely the greatest living novelist. These writers are not merely interested in the emotional lives of their characters, as are most current American novelists: they are tackling the deepest philosophical questions, either through metaphor and symbolism, or through the debates of the characters, or even through the direct insertion of argumentative essays in the fiction, which you find in Musil, in Broch and Kundera. And if the Central Europeans (particularly the novelists who write in German) eschew the show-don’t-tell rule, so do the Latin Americans: think of Borges and García Márquez in particular. Borges’ intricate and logic-defying stories (or should I call them logic-enlarging stories?) often have the scope and impact of a whole conventional novel—and they have it because Borges resorts unashamedly to exposition and summary. It’s not that he can’t do scene: he’s a master of it. It’s that he’s too ambitious, he wants to get to the heart of the existential matter at once. Similarly with García Márquez. Again, he is a brilliant exponent of show, don’t tell, but some of his novels, and One Hundred Years of Solitude in particular—one of the greatest of all novels—is almost entirely told. Why? Because if it were all shown it would be thousands of pages long. He manages to cram an epic of the creation of a nation—Colombia, and by extension, colonial and post-colonial Latin America in general—into a mere four hundred pages. And yet it never feels summarized; it never feels dull. So how does he do it? In several ways: first, when he is summarizing, he gives the impression of scenes by creating what I call half-scenes or scenelets: not complete dramatic units, but glimpses of action with real sensory detail. If you sprinkle a summary of a decade, for example, with these, you may be able to trick the reader into believing that she is observing actual events passing in scene. It’s a sleight of hand. Of course he does insert scenes judiciously too. And finally, his language is so euphonious, so musical and majestic (especially in Spanish) and so replete with stunning images and humour—in short, the voice is so compelling—that we are ready to follow him anywhere, even to a depressing place like Colombia in the grip of civil war.
And the writers of the Latin American boom—Gabo, Borges, Fuentes, Allende and Cortázar in particular—continue to exert a strong influence not only on current Latin American fiction, but also on Chicano/a writers like Sandra Cisneros, Ana Menéndez and Cristina García. The latter, particularly, is a consummate maestra of tell-don’t-show. I teach her latest novel, King of Cuba, which is told almost entirely from the points of view of El Comandante, a fictionalized Fidel Castro, and an embittered Cuban exile in the US. I was concerned that its lack of overt drama might seem tedious to my undergraduate students, but in fact they find it entertaining and thought-provoking; so far I have had no complaints.
So perhaps there is a lesson here for North American writers, to be learned from the great writers of Central Europe and Latin America? I don’t suggest that we ditch the scene—of course we need it—if the novel is to remain vital on this continent, novelists need to be thinking along more ambitious lines. A novel should be more than a critique of pop culture, or a picture of the lives of a certain set of people. Although it must be a story, it has to be more than a story. The great novels are not just moving stories of individuals, but investigations of what it means to be human, not only at this point of time, but at any. The great novel is a spiritual quest—even if the protagonist is not aware of it—and leads the reader to a deeper, richer understanding of this puzzling but awe-fully beautiful world. Show it, certainly—but don’t forget to tell it too. And if your writing has already reached a certain level of skill–if you haven already mastered your craft–you might consider telling more than showing. The rewards can be immense.