Second-hand Advice (1): Show and tell

I don’t consider myself any kind of expert fiction writer, with my bare handful of published short stories to my name, but I am a longtime student of the endeavor. I consider the learning process to be an ongoing thing, and I have had my fair share of “a ha” moments over the years (and years and years). In some of those cases, I’d like to think that I’ve processed the lessons learned to the extent that I could make a fair attempt at passing them along myself. So, starting with this post and continuing on an irregular basis whenever I’m reminded of an example, I’d like to offer my own takes and insights on some of the things I’ve been taught about writing which I believe bear repeating.

Someone asked recently if it ever got tiring hearing the same old advice over and over again to “show, don’t tell”. It was not so much an indictment of the frequency, or a request for some new advice since the old has been repeated so often that everyone has internalized it and gains nothing from hearing it ad nauseum; it was a genuine questioning of the validity of the advice itself. The asker’s attitude more or less boiled down to “shut up and let me tell my story my way, or if you want a show go to the movies!”

Personally, I don’t ever get tired of being urged to “show, don’t tell”. It’s something I struggle with on the regular, and I consider each and every reminder helpful. I think it goes without saying that it’s good advice for storytelling, but apparently it’s not self-evident, since at least one person is capable of doubting its utility.

Part of the problem, I think, arises from confusion over what exactly is meant by the word “show”. It’s not intended to mean a hyper-focus on visual imagery and descriptive details. It simply means to demonstrate, as in the old math teacher’s insistence to “show your work”.

So, assuming a writer composing a scene in which a protagonist escapes from a prison, the text might read as follows:

Roy slipped through the unlocked door and quickly padded to the end of the corridor, where he bumped into two guards on patrol. He fought his way past the guards, leaving them unconscious in his wake, and continued toward the main gate.

Not the most scintillating prose in the world, I readily admit, but I think it’s perfectly serviceable and, more to the point, it doesn’t violate the spirit of “show, don’t tell”. Yes, it includes a reference to a fight without actually conjuring up a clear blow-by-blow of attacks and injuries. It tells us the fight happened rather than showing it to the audience in detail, but that’s basically a stylistic choice.

Consider, on the other hand, a passage like this:

Roy was normally a pacifist, but he was out for blood now. The evil warden had spent months torturing Roy for no apparent reason, and Roy burned for revenge. Within a few paces of the main gate, he stopped and changed direction, intent on finding the warden and leaving him a permanent reminder of their time together.

This is the kind of writing I would call out for ignoring the “show, don’t tell” rule. This prose isn’t just condensing action down to a summary level to get the same idea across quickly, it’s asserting value judgments and drawing conclusions, all of which is best left to the readers. The text is telling that Roy is a pacifist, that the warden is evil, that the torture was without cause or explanation, and that Roy has a plan to settle the score. These are the kinds of things that could be shown in less presumptive ways. No need to tell the reader that Roy is a pacifist if he can be observed living that philosophy, or to label the warden as evil if his violations of order and goodness can be narrated.

Not that any of the above is absolutely inviolable. Sometimes “show, don’t tell” feels like beating around the bush. Sometimes a writer might be working in first person and want to state explicit conclusions and value judgments because that’s the way the narrating character thinks about the world. Above all, sometimes breaking a rule is a really effective attention-getting move. But to break a rule in a memorable way, it helps to know why the rule is there in the first place, and the above is how it finally made sense to me.


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