We all know the Chekhov quote now – ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ – and it’s a great illustration of the point.
Every time I assess or edit a fresh manuscript for a client, the words ‘show don’t tell’ will always pop up at least once in my notes, whether it’s simply a need to show the heat and tension on a character’s face rather than simply writing, ‘She was angry’, or a greater sin of completely lapsing into distant overview and summarising whole scenes when what we really need is to stay in the moment.
However, there is definitely a time and a place for telling. You just need to make sure you know when and where that is.
I am rereading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler and rediscovering what a masterclass it is on the subject. It’s hard to talk about the book without spoilers, so I will simply say that Rosemary’s story is unravelled throughout the early decades of her life, which Fowler achieves through a balance of scene-building and overview, showing and telling, both of which are necessary because of the scope of the story. The genius of this narrative is Fowler’s instinct for when to zoom in for a closeup of the moments of Rosemary’s life and when to pull away to show readers the bigger picture. She does so with a deft hand that allows her to skip from the past to the present, and uses the distinct first-person voice to colour her ‘telling’ with the opinions and character of her narrator that make the book so unique. I highly recommend taking a look.
Zooming in and out is a great way of addressing the showing and telling issue. For the most part, we obviously need to be zoomed in. This is where readers are flies on walls that you are creating, eavesdropping on the dialogue, absorbing interactions moment by moment, interpreting nuanced behaviour into character and plot (with no ‘telling’ from you). The telling comes in when you need to convey something that cannot be shown … and I mean really cannot be shown; this does not include explanations of what a character is feeling, unnecessary chapter introduction and summaries of what’s generally going on (which often show a lack of confidence in your ability and underestimate the intelligence of your readers).
So, when can you tell?
‘Telling’ often becomes necessary when there are gaps that need to be filled; either the past needs to be explained or time has moved on and your readers need to know what’s happened in their absence. This is where I encourage you to get creative and ask questions of your project. Do you need to tell as much as you think in the exposition? Would you be creating a more challenging read if background was implied rather than directly revealed? And when used, what can you do to create ‘telling’ that is as absorbing and compelling as the ‘showing’? Fowler and others zoom in and out even within exposition, often throwing in fragments of scenes and dialogue alongside summary to illustrate their ‘telling’; what can you do in this way to dissolve the distance that ‘telling’ creates?
This is especially challenging with first-person narratives, where you are firmly positioned inside your main character’s head and it is tempting to explain what they are thinking and experiencing rather than showing it, which is why it is so important to consider how you are going to approach this kind of commentary before beginning. Even if you have created a character whose thought processes, worldview and personal voice are so dynamic and captivating that we are hanging off every thought they have, we will still get closer to them if we are allowed to see out of their eyes and experience the world the way they see it, rather than simply being told about it.
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