Monday, November 24, 2008

Show, Don't Tell - Confusion in Action

Show, don’t [just] tell. We hear this phrase a lot, but what does is mean? A more important question, does anyone agree? Brandilyn Collins says the rule means to “communicate information to your reader through a character's actions, expressions, words, or perceptions rather than communicating through author narrative.” (Rules, Rules, Rules—Show, Don’t Tell, 03/13/2008) Monica Wood declares, “showing can be thought of as scene, telling as narrative.” (Description, pg 21, 1999, Writers Digest Books) D. G. Jerz says that “Telling communicates facts; showing invites understanding.” (Show, Don’t (Just) Tell, 05/08/2000) Literary agent Rachelle Gardner says, “The point of showing is to give your reader an experience as opposed to information.” (Showing vs. Telling, 10/29/2008)

Taking these statements alone, you may not see just how different these statements are, but when we look at the examples they provide and the more detailed statements, we see that each has a significantly different view. What one holds up as an example of telling another might describe as showing. Who is right? This is where it starts to get interesting—they are all right. Brandilyn, to some degree, ties showing to close third person. This isn’t totally inconsistent with other views, since the purpose of using close third person is to pull the reader into a scene and “give the reader an experience” as Rachelle mentioned. But it’s also possible to write a scene in close third person that only communicates facts. What makes them correct isn’t that they are in agreement, but that from their point of view, their understanding of Show, Don’t Tell will produce the more noble thing we will call good writing.

Now, it is highly unlikely that any of the four or other experts who talk about show, don’t tell are going to look at good writing and call it bad because it doesn’t match some concept of show, don’t tell. What I think we’ll find is that each would offer different suggestions on how bad writing might be improved. Brandilyn seems most interested in the emotions of her protagonist, so she is likely to suggest more details concerning internal thoughts. Rachelle is more interested in external details. What does the character see, hear, touch, etc? Jerz is more likely to suggest creating a scene with action and conflict. Monica doesn’t much care whether you show with action or tell with narrative, but she wants descriptive details. Each of these may improve our writing in some way.

The rest of us also come into this with a unique point of view. We take what other people say, run it through our unique filters and develop our own view. It’s our own view that will ultimately shape our writing. So rather than seeing show, don’t tell as a confusing rule that no one knows what it means, we should find a variation on the rule that helps our writing then put it to good use.