Here’s my final word on “Show, don’t tell.”
This phrase is sanctimoniously quoted in almost every discussion among writers. Critiques frequently contain the comment, “Too much telling, not enough showing.”
This has started to bug me. It’s too pat, repeated so often it has become meaningless. What’s more, it’s a rule that’s broken all the time, by successful, widely published authors.
I recently started reading Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. People have gushed about his books to the point I decided to try one as summer vacation reading. Imagine my surprise when I found the beginning, the all-important-hook-’em-in-the-first-few-pages part to consist of Telling. Paragraph upon paragraph of it:
Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.
They would listen to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew’s end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.
Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.
In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fish-hawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter.
Pure “telling,” with backstory yet, and three one-sentence paragraphs, another no-no. And yet, it’s beautiful, compelling writing. It captured my attention and kept it.
So now I’m thinking that “Show, don’t tell,” is not a rule but a metaphor, a short way of saying “Write vivid, smoothly flowing sentences that create images in readers’ minds and resonate memorably in their ears.” Or my favourite: “Make a mind-movie for your reader.”
Now back to GGK’s version of Tang Dynasty China.