Show Don’t Tell
by Mike Johnson
Tell me a story
tell me a story
tell me a story before I go to bed.
So runs the popular children’s song of old, but apparently no longer, and what started out as a perfectly sound piece of advice to writers, show don’t tell, has somehow morphed into a dogma, and, like all dogmas, become fixed and absolute: Thou shalt not tell but only show. And that’s silly.
Let’s begin by admitting that all stories, all fiction, is a judicious mix of both show and tell. Some styles run leaner on the telling side than others, depending on the governing aesthetic of the story. You wouldn’t want Ernest Hemmingway to write up our fairy-tales or folk tales, there might well be nothing left of them.
Show don’t tell may become an imperative for dramatists, whether the drama takes the form of a novel, film script or play, working with a full length, three act story. It doesn’t work so well for a whole range of short stories films etc that naturally lean closer to the ‘slice of life’, less structured approach, or novels that do not follow what we may call Classical Story Design – a topic I’m sure we will return to.
In his famous study of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the literary critic George Steiner suggests there are two kinds of fiction writers, those who write dramas, like Dostoevsky, and those who write epics or chronicles, like Tolstoy. Not that Tolstoy couldn’t write a dramatic scene when he wanted to, but the overall structure of say War and Peace, is more like the episodic wandering contours of real life than the focused dramatic intensity of The Gambler or Demons is. Notice that Tolstoy could not seem to finish his novel, adding postscripts and epilogues, because the story is more like real life, messy and unfinished. Any story that attempts to follow the contours of real life stands in contrast to the clean lines of the three act structure, necessarily an abstraction from life.
So your first question is, what kind of story am I writing? Then you might get a feel for how much telling and how much showing is needed.
Furthermore, we can find showing within a context of telling (Tolstoy/Tolkien) and telling within a context of showing (Dostoevsky/Atwood).
Finally, in our enthusiasm to do the right thing, let’s not forget the simple, spine tingling elegance of telling, in the right context:
There was once a poor man who had two sons, and a rich man who had two daughters…
How silly it would be to try to ‘show’ this, when a simple statement sets it all up.
Proceed with caution.