Writers love to talk about how fallible “the writing rules” are. The rules are made to be broken, we say. And proceed to do so. However, this rule — “show v. tell” — is one that often gets the brunt of our wrath. But why?
For my part, I have benefited from the rules and think many of them get a bum rap. Of course, the rules of writing are more guidelines than they are formulas. Which is the problem: Novice writers often seek formulas to publication. Sadly, there is no formula to “showing versus telling.”
I like how James Scott Bell puts it in his piece “Exception to the Rule,”
Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.
Which means there needs to be a balance between showing and telling; it’s not an either / or situation. A story that was all “telling” would be shorter, less visceral and less emotionally engaging. A story that was all “showing” would be incredibly long and overwrought, possibly meandering.
Thus, telling is a great way to move a story forward, to compact longer sections of thought or passages of time.
He got in the truck and drove back to town, all the while thinking about Janie.
This gets the protag where he needs to be in one swift sentence. However, perhaps this ride is more significant to our hero (and reader). If so, it would be better shown. Which means it might read better like this:
The scent of Janie’s perfume lingered in the truck. He wrung the steering wheel as he drove, wishing he could hear her little laugh again and see the sparkle in her sea green eyes.
Lately, I’ve been reviewing my copy of The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory. It’s a classic, published in 1884. and still being reprinted. It’s also, I think, a valuable tool for writers. In his chapter, “The Law of the Learner,” Gregory writes this:
Knowledge cannot be passed like a material substance from one mind to another, for thoughts are not objects which may be held or handled. Ideas can be communicated only by inducing in the receiving mind processes corresponding to those by which these ideas were first conceived. Ideas must be rethought, experiences must be re-experienced. (emphasis mine)
So the teacher much address the mind and the senses; he must stimulate in his listeners, not just a mental process, but an experience. It’s not enough to tell the learner what to feel, he must make him actually feel it. Which leads Gregory to summarize:
The mind attends to that which makes a powerful appeal to the senses.
I think that this writing rule — show v. tell — is directly related to Gregory’s concept. So here’s my idea:
- Telling appeals to the mind.
- Showing appeals to the sense.
And appealing to the reader’s senses more actively engages her in the story.
Beginning writers tend to over-tell. Why? Because telling is a lot easier than showing; it involves less emotional machinations, less investment. Telling does not demand I really dig into my character’s psyche and put myself in his skin. I can simply say,
He was mad.
And that suffices. All this to say, Show v. tell is an important writing rule, one that beginners and pros must respect. It’s not enough to just spout about the rules being made to be broken. A story needs both showing and telling. Which makes me wonder if a better interpretation of the rule is “Thou shalt know when to show and when to tell.”
Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The Ghost Box, The Telling, The Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.