Well, Thanksgiving is long over, yet somehow it's still not December, and Christmas is only a distant glimmer on the horizon. So it seems a good time as any to unleash my curmudgeonly side (note: you've been warned!).
I really truly hate it when people invoke "show vs. tell" to justify why a line or a scene should be dramatized rather than merely explained. It's like nails on a chalkboard. Especially, of course, when it's being used to critique my own work!
But I don't think my hatred is all due to pride. I don't have the same reaction to, say, "character development," or "rising tension." No, I think it's because "show vs. tell" is such a trite phrase, in my opinion often meaningless and over-used. In reality, a writer's decision to "show" or "tell" can be meaty and complex, and "show" should not always win out.
Firstly, I think "showing" is often a quick path to cliché writing. How many ways are there to say that my character's heart is racing? And if I instead turn to my thesaurus and say her heart is pounding, or thumping, or galloping out of her chest like a doped thoroughbred, does that make it any less cliché?
Also, a wise editor once taught me that sometimes "telling", at the end of a long, descriptive paragraph, can be an emotional confirmation for a reader, even a perfect kick in the stomach. Take this example from Harry Potter (underlining mine!): "Harry, Ron, and Hermione sniffed interestedly as they passed large, bubbling cauldrons. . . . They chose the [table] nearest a gold-colored cauldron that was emitting one of the most seductive scents Harry had ever inhaled: Somehow it reminded him simultaneously of treacle tart, the woody smell of a broomstick handle, and something flowery he thought he might have smelled at the Burrow. A great contentment stole over him; he grinned across at Ron, who grinned back lazily." Beautiful description, huh? But I think it's the telling in the last sentence that solidifies it all in my mind.
Plus, sometimes, the line between "showing" and "telling" is quite blurred. Take this scene from Please Excuse Vera Dietz, a contemporary YA novel by A. S. King (and one of my favorite reads of the year thus far!):
(warning, one curse word and a pretty insignificant spoiler)
"So, I kiss him and it feels really nice, and I really don't care that James is twenty-three, or a college dropout, or that he smokes. I wonder if this is step two on the baby-steps-to-loserdom trip I seem to be taking tonight, but I simultaneously don't care. I'm eighteen years old and I've never had a real boyfriend. I've never got past first base or gone to the prom or got detention for PDA. All this time I thought that if I avoided all the slutty shit my mother must have done, I would be a good person. I'd be safe. I'd be better than her. But while James is kissing me and holding the back of my head with his strong fingers entwined in my hair, I realize I don't really care about my mother and how she became a shallow loser capable of leaving her husband and kid. I realize that this feels nice and I really want to keep doing it."
Other than the description of James holding her, it's a lot of "telling". So why does this passage kick me in the gut? I think it's because it's so sad; I realized here all Vera had been missing out on, how much she'd been holding herself back and never allowing herself to live, all because she was dealing with the repercussions of her mother's disappearance, and her fear of making some of the same mistakes. And here's where "showing vs. telling" gets confusing. Is King "telling" me Vera's history, or using Vera's history and word choice to "show" me how confused Vera is?
This really gets at the heart of why I think "showing vs. telling" is over-used and meaningless. The best writing is a combination of both. It's using language in whatever unique way is necessary to create gut-wrenching scenes and sympathetic characters. So sure, sometimes even I need a reminder that I should draw a scene out more, "show" what's going on inside a character's head, heart, and lower intestines. But I do wish writer-dom would get over the phrase!
In other writerly, end of November news, my revision is near complete. Yay! It's about to go out to a small group of readers--and on the off chance any of them are reading this, feel free to remind me about "show vs. tell." I'm sure you're right.
How do you feel about the phrase "show vs. tell"? Is there any other writing advice that sets your teeth on edge?