Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Show and tell: not just for elementary school.

Poster by eypril

Today we continue our discussion of my Monday night class at Grub Street: The Rules of Writing: How to Use Them & When To Break Them, taught by Joan Wickersham.

Show, don't tell.

Man, you just hear it EVERYWHERE, don't you? But what the heck does it really mean? Yes, it's way better to have your character's brow furrow and his face get red and his jaw clench than to write, "Then he got angry." But, if taken too literally, you're not allowed to say "he brushed his teeth" because you instead have to describe the picking up of the brush, the running of the water, the application of the toothpaste... I'm already boring myself here.

How do you find the happy medium?

Joan rewrote the "show, don't tell" rule as: Show and tell. Show what needs to be shown, but don't neglect the possibility of narration, and don't fear the unexpected.

Let's consider a few examples to make this point. (Ha! Showing!)

First, let's take the start of Hemingway's short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Pure dialogue. A man and a woman. He is talking about "how it ends" and "the odour" and she is telling him not to talk. Large "obscene" birds fly and land around them. She asks if she can do anything, and he says maybe taking off the leg... or just shoot him.

Joan said, and I agree, that this is as close to pure showing as you can get. What isn't being said here? That the man is dying of gangrene, the vultures are circling, and he's pushing away the woman who loves him. By showing instead of telling, there's a certain mystery and immediacy to the story (it's like you're sitting next to them), a prolonging of the moment (it's 3 pages in before Hemingway confirms your suspicions by saying it's gangrene in the man's right leg), and the reader is given the ability to discover for him/herself what is going on. Hemingway's not out to confuse you, he's out to shock you. To let you have that moment of realization on your own.

In contrast, there's the scene in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies) where Darcy is asking for Elizabeth's hand in marriage. There's almost no dialogue at all. Instead, we are told what Elizabeth is thinking as the narration follows her thought process. Now, there's certainly some showing (e.g. we see Darcy pacing before the proposal instead of reading "he was agitated") but mostly it's just one character's internal voice about how arrogant this jerk is. Why does telling work here?

There's the issue of focus: let's face it, we don't CARE what words Darcy uses here. It's a rotten proposal, and we care more about what's going on in Elizabeth's head during his speech than we do about the speech itself. (And, if you want to get really fancy, Austen is in a way showing that Elizabeth has probably tuned out the exact words of the proposal herself, due to the way it is being presented.) There's also the issue of pacing: just as Hemingway slows down the discovery of the gangrene, Austen speeds up your discovery of Darcy's arrogance. Because we don't need leisurely discovery, we need to understand the fallout afterwards.

Here's my own theory as to what both excerpts have in common: both writers make you avert your eyes from the key subject matter of the story. In another class I took, the instructor said that a the in-class writing assignment crafted by one student worked so well because the most heartbreaking material was handled with restraint. This understatement, this avoidance of telling the reader the heart of the matter so that s/he can bring his/her own emotions to the book rather than having them supplanted by the writer's experiences and expectations, is in my opinion what makes the pieces work. The heart of the story is that a man is dying... wait. Don't reveal it right away. The heart of the scene is that this proposal is garbage... don't quote the proposal. In the case of William Maxwell's novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, there's a scene where the author shows the pain a boy has felt by being ripped away from his home by showing only the things he has been forced to leave behind. The author shows restraint by taking the boy out of the scene. And I think the passage pretty universally knocked the class on its collective butt.

It's all about pacing, and focus, and not robbing the reader of the most vital experiences in reading. Now... go forth and experiment.


  1. Wow. Great stuff here. I'm going to go look at my WIP for what's obvious and what's veiled, and what's shown and told.


  2. Not really much for me to comment on because you said it all and I agree with what you have said.

  3. I am loving these Grub Street posts.

    Bookmarked? Check.
    Printed and put in writing folder? Check.
    Coming back for more? Check.

    Thanks for the great stuff! :-)

  4. I like the advice to go forth and experiment. That's the nice thing about writing. We can try something and if it doesn't work, we can simply use our eraser or backspace buttons :)

    Thanks for the update on the Show and Tell concept from Joan.

  5. Both of the WIPS i hope to publish are written in first person, so there has to be some amount of telling. I just try to show while telling.

    Great post!

  6. Post of the year here, Carrie. I really like this and couldn't agree more--but you've also hit on the restraint factor that is hard to explain and show. Very useful and nicely done.

  7. This is one of the most frustrating rules in writing, but once you learn well, can be your best asset!

    Great post!

  8. The thing about showing is, it almost always takes more words, and for something not too important can lay undue stress where you don't want it. So personally I tend to tell when I want to shortcut my way through something necessary to the mechanics of the plot but not all that important to the story.

    The example in Pride & Prejudice is very cool. Never noticed that before.

    I really like your avert your eyes terminology!

  9. Once, I took a writing class at Grub Street and the instructor commented on my in-class work just in the manner you described - as being handled effectively with restraint. So can I tell you how I was able to do it? HOW. This is what we are always trying to get at. But. It was an IN CLASS impromptu piece of work - terrifying for me because I am an incessant revisor of my work.

    Today, I will do what I always do - I will walk to the woods, around the lake, and through the cornfield (a one-hour meditative and physical workout) and I will mull over the HOW. My answer for now is simply this:

    Take a class that terrifies you. You will become forced to exercise your mind and your heart and your soul in frightening ways, you will become vulnerable, and it will change how you perceive yourself as an artist. Adrenaline is a powerful drug. One of my favorites. The artist who dares to be vulnerable is the easiest one to love.

  10. Hey, Theresa! Um, yeah, that was you I was talking about. In Steve Almond's class. And your writing was FREAKING BRILLIANT.

  11. I love this - "both writers make you avert your eyes from the key subject matter of the story"

    That was a very nice eye-opening moment for me. I think it's something we all subconsciously do so emtiems, but being aware of it means we can make it stronger.

    Great post!

  12. Carrie - you shot me full of adrenaline with that comment and I thank you! In the world of artists, we cannot receive without giving back - because everything we get is on some level inspirational.

    I'm giving back on your January 14th post, but it will take me a little while to get to it.

    And also noting (if you don't already know) that Tim Horvath's work is published in the most recent "Conjunctions" - the literary magazine published by Bard College. Avant-garde work. Great literary mag.


  13. Interesting. I like that you quickly get away from the 'show don't tell' or even the 'show and tell' rules, and point to other more important things regarding why those particular scenes work.

    I still don't get the appeal of the 'show don't tell' nonsense. Is it just because people like that in elementary school there was 'show and tell' where kids got to bring stuff to class that was never appropriate otherwise?

    I don't get it though, no matter how many times it's demystified the answers always end up being as vague as before, or the demystifier comes to a grand conclusion (as you did, and I do believe it's grand) that really has nothing to do with the show or tell concepts.

    I mean, 'show don't/and tell' pretty much always comes to the answer of 'well, just try to write good fiction' (since bad writing can show, and good writing can tell) which isn't very instructive.

    So kudos on coming to a better, more relevant conclusion/theory. The next time someone asks how to 'show' or 'tell' I'm going to tell them to go work on pacing and misdirection, and do whatever they need to accomplish what they're attempting to accomplish.