If there is one maxim that is relentlessly driven down the throats of writers who are starting out, it is that fiction should “show, not tell.” Whenever you hear this statement in its purest, unadulterated form, you may be sure you are in the hands of a hack.
What is usually meant by this extremely simplified directive is that fiction should be vivid rather than abstract, dramatized rather than descriptive. This is fine, as far as it goes. However, there is a problem.
An enormous number of books that claim to present rules for writing fiction have appeared in recent years. With a few exceptions, these guides recycle the same well-worn clichés. The people who write these books are usually writers whose own works have not sold very well. A recent, particularly comical trend is for agents to publish books on how to write fiction. This is a somewhat akin to Ashley Dupré writing a guide to marriage. One well-known agent suggests that writers should heighten the best attributes of their main character—or else heighten their weaknesses. This is moderately reasonable advice, equally applicable to a Hollywood action script, a comic book, and perhaps even to a commercial novel. But not necessarily to a literary novel.
Somerset Maugham once amusingly remarked, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.” More to the point, I would suggest: No one agrees what they are.
Of the hundreds of books that discuss the mechanics of fiction writing, one that I still consult is Revising Fiction by David Madden. This actually takes a highly nuanced view of writing, a view that is as applicable to writing first drafts as it is to revisions. But even as intelligent a writer as Madden presents the “show, don’t tell” advice with only minor qualifications.
Contrary to this approach I would cite Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961. Here the author engages in a sustained critique of the “show, don’t tell” maxim. One of Booth’s main accomplishments is to demonstrate that there are a nearly infinite number of gradations between absolute telling and absolute showing, and that these can be used by fiction writers in a variety of ways. It’s worth noting that this is a work of criticism, not an off-the-shelf “how to” book.
My intention is to take Booth’s argument further. My claim is that the partisans of “show, don’t tell” suffer from a very specific conceptual confusion. The truth is that in an absolute, literal sense, narrative writing can only tell.
The bullets whizzed by my ear. My guts fell to the floor.
The shots narrowly missed Pearson. He felt his nerves tighten.
Contrary to what certain people would tell you, both these sentences are forms of telling. The first is clearly more vivid, but it is nevertheless written as first-person narration, a manner of telling. If I were sitting next to you in a bar and said “The bullets whizzed by my ear…” I would be telling you something. I would have shown you nothing.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
This, as most readers will recognize, is the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the sentence should have been deleted by an alert editor? Does anyone seriously think the opening of the novel would be improved by doing so?
You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars?
That’s Hemingway, the notorious first sentence of To Have and Have Not. The writer may be painting a picture, a type of showing, but he is doing so by addressing the reader directly, most definitely a way of telling. Whether it works or not is open to debate.
The Rationale for the Maxim
“Show, don’t tell” is the most clichéd of nostrums. Like all clichés, there is a reason for its existence. It’s worth considering how this strategy became a rule.
David Madden cites Chekhov as its possible father. Booth focuses more on Flaubert. What these writers were rebelling against was the heavy-handed authorial presence, which is to say, editorializing or winking at the reader, as well as against bland description. Their major prohibition was against extended philosophizing, against haranguing the reader. What they were breaking with was the Victorian novel as practiced 150 years ago. In case no one has noticed, things have changed since then. Movies, television, and computer games show us things with far greater speed and enormously greater impact than does narrative prose. It doesn’t really make sense to still be in revolt against the Victorian novel. What’s more, action-packed, hyperactive writing can definitely grate on the soul.
There are nevertheless ways in which narrative fiction can indeed “show.” Most interestingly, it can do so by leaving things out, by not showing. We can listen to a narrator and realize that what he is telling us is unreliable. We can read between the lines of dialogue to see that two characters are falling in love, or that one character is swindling another. These are incisive yet indirect ways of showing.
If a writer describes a character sitting outside his former lover’s door, this is probably more effective that simply writing “he was still in love with her.” Then again, it depends on the use to which the scene is put. It depends on what comes next. The relation between showing and telling is thus more subtle and more complex than is usually assumed. What is commonly called “showing” in narrative fiction is in fact a form of “telling.”
And so, here’s my advice: The next time you hear someone say “show, don’t tell,” just show them the door. Unless they’re Anton Chekhov, that is.
A few days after writing this, I reread Chekhov’s story, “Lady with Lap Dog.” Even using the conventional definition of showing and telling, it should be noted that this story is overwhelmingly composed of narrative and description. There is very little “showing” of any kind.
To trace the origin of the maxim further: Chekhov is rumored to have said, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Presumably he said this in Russian, perhaps in French. Nevertheless, Chekhov rarely uses images this colorful or poetic in his own writing. When he does, it is for a specific purpose.