Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why I hate the phrase "show vs. tell"

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?

18 comments:

  1. Excellent post. I completely agree. You need both 'showing' and 'telling'. It's knowing how to combine them effectively that's the tricky bit.

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    1. Thanks, Candy! Scary writing posts like this--I was a little afraid the writing community was going to jump all over me! Nice to have affirmation instead!

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  2. *applause* I totally agree. Sometimes generic writing advice is more dangerous than helpful. Show vs. Tell has to be a decision made solely on what that scene calls for!

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    1. Aw, thank you! And thanks for stopping by! That's exactly it--I think people just throw out the generic "show vs. tell" line for any occasion without thinking.

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  3. Aarg! Left long post but probably neglected to sign in. Did say that I've never shown "fear" without resorting to cliche...but neither has anyone else! Also dissed JKR passage. So wordy and laboured. Sorry!

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    1. Ugh, sorry about that, Jane. Not sure what happened! Yeah, I may have picked on them above, but I have countless racing hearts in my current wip!

      The only thing that really troubles me about the JKR passage is those adverbs. Interestedly? Ugh, I can't even pronounce it! But I do maintain the description is good!

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  4. Yes, not everything needs to be shown! Some things are just more effective in the telling.

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    1. Yay! So glad I'm not the only one who's been feeling this way!

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  5. I'm so with you on this.
    Some of it is a generational issue. Older writing (say, from the ancient times of a hundred years ago...) was much more TELL than SHOW, and the inverse is the style now. But we also now use fragment sentences in fiction very effectively. Like so. Some of what we have come to regard as good writing would have been perceived as b-a-a-a-d back then.
    But it has become a cliché to throw the SDT comment, and a lazy one for critiques and editors. Beware of clichés and lazy feedback givers, I say. Good feedback comes from people who are wide awake and think on their feet.

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    1. This so true, Mirka, and really interesting to think about. I do wonder about Dickens or the Brontes would make of our current writing? What would they love? What would they hate? And how do we judge writing because of our own cultural perspectives?

      And yes, exactly, I think that's what bothers me most about show vs. tell. It feels like such a lazy comment and usually totally unhelpful!

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  6. I think 'show not tell' is particularly unhelpful when writing a first draft. On a second draft you can go back and think about whether you need that extra confirmation of telling. I do a search on the word 'feel' and examine every time the narrator tells us what he/she is feeling - is it clear without that 'telling'?
    I'm going to diss the JKR extract too - 'interestedly'? Really?

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    1. That's very true, Keren. On that first draft, you just need to focus on getting the story out there in whatever way feels most organic.

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  7. I totally agree! Sometimes telling is necessary in situations. I just wrote a whole draft with little telling and lots of showing. I had to rewrite whole sections because it was too vague for the reader and I needed to do a little telling.

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    1. Yay! So glad to know I'm not being a total curmudgeon! ;)
      Likewise, I was just re-reading a draft and realized I had this whole flashback scene which was kind of unnecessary, because I'd already told the reader what had happened, and it was taking the reader out of the moment.

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  8. LOL. Showing can be bad especially when it's full of adverbs. Almost like show melodrama. Some scenes just need telling -- the key is the voice. This why I love that you use that fabulous example. The telling has character. It has voice. And it reveals so much. No need to show her face flushing or heads sweating or her quickening od breath. Ha, ha.

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    1. Yes, I just LOVE that voice in the Vera Dietz passage! If only we could all write like that, we'd never need to worry about showing!

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  9. I agree about the racing heart. Sometimes I feel like I'm pulling words out of a hat, using different words and phrases for common emotions.

    Showing and telling are both needed. Some areas need fleshing out while others need tightening, and both can pack a punch.

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    1. Hah! Glad it's not just me, Medeia! I've got a lot of racing hearts in my writing! ;)

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