Show or Tell?

One of the fundamental bits of wisdom writers are reminded of over and over again is, “Show, don’t tell.”  Don’t write, “The sun was so hot that my feet felt like they were burning when I walked on the sand barefoot.”  Instead, write, “My bare feet sizzled on the hot sand.”

No arguments there; the second example even has the undisputed writerly virtue of being shorter. That’s another maxim that today’s writers should carve on their hearts:  the shorter, the better.  But I’ve already dealt with it here (Writing Short, Writing Long, Sept. 19). Today’s question is whether showing is always better than telling.

My opinion? It depends. It depends on what you are showing or telling, and what its purpose is in the context of the work you are creating. Let’s say it’s a novel. There are almost as many approaches to writing novels as there are novelists (or maybe it just seems that way), but most novels consist of scenes involving action or dialogue or both, connected with sections of narrative. The trick is to get the right balance between the length and number of fully-realized scenes and instances of narrative.

Let’s look at an example. Here is a paragraph from my novel, The Friendship of Mortals.

West was right, in a way. Our involvement with the corpse of John Hocks was never brought home to us by any of the conventional authorities, although we had (I thought) left such a trail of evidence that any competent investigator should have found it necessary to question one or both of us. Our grave-digging tools, for example, stayed in the woods near Hangman’s Brook for several days before I remembered them. West retrieved them that night, but anyone could have found them in the meantime.

This is definitely telling. What would showing look like?

A few days after Hocks disappeared, I called on West after work. Fortunately, he was at home.

“Hello Charles, what brings you here?”  He did not invite me past his front hall, but seemed quite prepared to hold a conversation standing by his coat-rack and half a dozen pairs of polished boots.

“I’ve just been thinking — ”

“A bad habit,” West interrupted. “At least when it’s really fretting that one is doing. Well, what’s on your mind?”

“Those tools we used to dig up Hocks. The spades and pry-bar. And the rope we hauled him out of the grave with. They’re all still out there, aren’t they?”

“Unless they sprouted legs and departed the scene, I imagine they’re where we left them, in the woods. What of it?” His tone was light and mocking, despite the quick frown of  annoyance that preceded it.

“Anyone could find them, that’s what. The police, for example. They should have searched those woods already.”

“You give the Arkham police far too much credit, Charles. They don’t exert themselves any more than they have to, certainly not on behalf of a drowned farm laborer from Maine whose corpse has gone missing. I doubt if it even occurred to them to set foot in the woods.” He executed a kind of side-step that brought him close to the door and which I took as a hint that I should be going.

“I just think it’s something we should take care of, that’s all. A loose end.” And one that the instigator of the plan should have thought of. But I did not say this.

“All right, Charles,” West said, opening the door and letting in a flood of thick, yellow afternoon sunlight, “I’ll dash out there tonight and retrieve the tools. Does that put your mind at ease?”

If I had expected him to admit that he had made a mistake, I would have been disappointed.

The original paragraph was only a connector between two scenes that were more important to the plot of the novel. Turning it into a fully realized scene does not add anything to the story and would only slow down its forward movement.

Specifics aside, if every part of a novel was written out fully this way, it would inevitably swell to gargantuan proportions. On the other hand, a pure “showing” approach could be a series of discrete scenes with no connecting narrative. The writer would have to make sure that the chronological jumps would not confuse or disconcert the reader. Done well, such an approach can be elegant and successful.

But done well, any writing can be called successful (aesthetically, if not commercially).  Take, for instance, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite francaise, successful by any measure. It has huge stretches of telling, relatively few of showing. And yet, those long sections of narrative are compelling. They create a movie in the reader’s mind. In the end, that’s what good writing does, whether by showing, telling or both.

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