The Tyranny of Show Versus Tell
If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve heard many times the bromide “show, don’t tell,” but often the showing part dominates the telling and becomes tyrannical. As a writer friend once pointed out, when we’re writing fiction, we are storytelling and not storyshowing, and there are many ways to tell an engaging story.
Of course, some beginning writers do tend to summarize more than dramatize. They haven’t learned yet how to traverse between generalities and specifics. And in our early drafts, even more experienced writers often are just trying to capture their characters before they can disappear. Showing, then, tends to happen later in the drafting process.
However, it is important to know when one or the other is required, and that’s the advantage of using this shorthand workshop comment. When we show, we try to embellish scenes and important moments through using descriptive details that create images. Dialogue also helps to nail down character traits and interaction. When we tell, we are usually summarizing background information or periods that don’t need to be in the spotlight. We don’t want to call too much attention to some aspects of the tale we’re conveying.
I’m all for using whatever tools are at our disposal, and I don’t reject the idea that knowing how to show and tell effectively are important elements in writing narrative. However, they aren’t the only “show” in town. There are other ways to create drama and develop character that often get overlooked by the overused workshop mantra.
I’ve been rereading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and I’m absorbed by her characters’ inner lives. Not only does Woolf violate many of the strictures we hear in writing workshops about the dangers of switching points of view within a chapter, but she also rarely resorts to showing or dramatizing a scene. Instead, she seems to inhabit her settings and characters’ interiors, taking the reader with her inside their inner worlds, portraying how complex they are. I feel as if I’m watching a movie of their internal processes.
Of course, Woolf isn’t the only writer who takes a different approach to creating compelling narratives by not depending on show versus tell. W. G. Sebald’s hybrid “novels” have their own narrative logic that also disrupt the usual notion of what constitutes a story. And there are many others in this category: Samuel Beckett, David Foster Wallace, Proust, and other likeminded authors who aren’t afraid of a character’s introspection. In fact, I’m often bored by passages in some naturalistic works that race along, fueled by external action, forgetting to linger and let their creations sink down into the unconscious from which we have emerged.
What’s your take on this topic?
Lily Iona MacKenzie
A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in my early years, I supported myself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long-distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored me into the States). I also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (I was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got my legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created The Story Shoppe, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin County, CA, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in creative writing and one in the humanities). I have published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 165 American and Canadian venues. My novel Fling! was published in 2015. Curva Peligrosa, another novel, was published in September 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy was released in 2019. My poetry collection All This was published in 2011, and Prolific Press published my poetry chapbook No More Kings in March 2020. I blog at http://lilyionamackenzie.com.
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