The Problem with “Show Don’t Tell.”


Over the past eleven years of writing novels, I’ve learned a lot and work continuously on honing the craft. I especially appreciate the improvements I’ve made by attending weekly meetings with the Berkeley Writer’s Circle.

The most frustrating law of the literary world for me, going hand-in-hand with the deep “point of view” rule I also tackle, is the “show don’t tell” mantra. Overall, it’s a great rule. We don’t want to write “She was angry.” We want to say, “She stood up, and smashed her wine glass against the wall. Streaks of red wine looked like blood dripping down onto the patio. Glass shards appeared as a weapon of choice. Great, now the cops won’t only want me for my cocaine deals, they’ll question me for murder.” Now isn’t that more colorful if not too wordy?

I’m certain my show not tell example needs editing.

There are times I need to just tell it like it is. Creative fiction is story-TELLING, not story showing. A novel is not a movie. Sure, fiction is creative and needs to dramatize, not simply say things. At the same time, there is a moral message to the reader I want to let shine through, not have my audience constantly entertained. Story-telling can have as much texture as a show. We don’t always have to have the camera rolling, an external focus or action-packed scenes.

I write Contemporary Realistic Fiction, which contains truth in fictive form. It’s real emotions and behaviors in real settings. Not a fluffy romance or fast-moving crime story. It demands a deeper human lens, a stream of consciousness and emotional potency. With my anti-war theme, I find I need a good dose of straight talk to get inside the character’s heads.

For example, in my debut, Masks of Morality, the protagonist, Caryssa, is talking to a guy working at her former high-tech employer in Silicon Valley. She says: ” Come on, Sean. you’re a bright businessman, you know the only reason the USA stays locked into the same insane thing over and over, expecting a different result is our immoral political system itself — our acts of meddling in everyone’s affairs around the world wherever ‘freedom and democracy’ are claimed to be missing.”

Oh boy, I’m sure I improved my writing since this paragraph which sounds like an infodump of knowledge. At least I put it into dialogue and not just telling the reader of all those “thinks, understands, realizes …” words.

Some readers (including me) get frustrated when an author shows not tell through an entire novel. It feels contrived, even boring. Of course, telling too much is bad too, sounds like the author is lecturing or the characters are know-it-alls. I’ve come to think the best books are a blend of a show AND tell style. Sometimes, just rip the bandaid off and have the narrator/POV character drop a bomb of information. Maybe the proverbial good guy of society is really the bad guy.

An example of this is in my sequel, Monster Behind the Masks: One of my main character’s, the beautiful French artist Anna, says, “The CIA dude murdered both my art-gallery security guard and the guard at the prison his daughter he framed is locked up at. He’s tied into dark money from criminal elites.”

Sorry readers if I exposed the beloved intelligence community we’ve been told keeps us safe. I couldn’t help myself. As Edward Abbey said, “Words, words, the problem makes me thirsty.” Have a sip of wine!

I was pulling my hair out with this one and started researching. What a delight to find the article in Writer’s Digest titled “Why Show Don’t Tell is the Greatest Lie of Writing Workshops.” It honors a guest post by critically acclaimed novelist and writing instructor, Joshua Henkin with his topic of choice: A sound argument for breaking the “show don’t tell” rule of writing.

In it, he contends that yes, there’s truth in wanting to show characters internal thoughts or put those truths into justifiable actions rather than preachy “thought verbs.” Yet he cautions having the rule to be applied to all incidents in a story. It exhausts the reader to have all vivid scenes. In his own words, “fiction can give us thought: It can tell. Unlike movies. And where would Proust be if he couldn’t tell? Or Woolf, or Fitzgerald? Or William Trevor or Alice Munro or George Saunders or Lorrie Moore?”

Henkin, the award-winning American novelist known for his ability to draw the reader into his characters, went on to say, ” “If you ask me, the real reason people choose to show rather than tell is it’s so much easier to write ‘the big brown torn vinyl couch’ than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language. The phrase “Show, don’t tell,” then, provides cover for writers who don’t want to do what’s hardest (but most crucial) in fiction.”

Ernest Hemingway, a big proponent of the “show don’t tell” style said, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”

Okay, I’m no Ernest Hemingway. He was the master of words in the 20th century; He got inside of words. But, not necessarily the truth as it relates to the Spanish-American War. It’s been said he omitted too many essential details, causing him a great deal of tension. Much of Hemingway can be heard in George Orwell’s sentences about government control as something sinister.

Pablo Picasso is all over my novels, his art plays a big piece in the symbolism I use in my narrative. So I’ll quote him here: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

Yes, I want my readers to “see” my story rather than “hear” it told. Yet hearing the same words over and over from editors, writer support groups, friends, publishers and otherwise of “show us! Show, Show, Show! I say NO! NO! NO! Not in this particular scene anyway. I’ve learned enough to take certain advice with a grain of salt.

As it turns out, “honing the craft” can also mean being brave enough to break some rules and let our voice shine through.

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    • T.L Mumley on March 4, 2021 at 6:45 pm

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