Telling Vs Showing, Or Is It?

The advice is hammered into a baby writer’s head almost from Day One: “When writing anything,show don’t tell.”

I’m not the first to point out the following, but it bears repeating, so let’s think about this, shall we? And let’s begin with two character descriptions:

“Jim Bob Hattrick was the sort of man who would have everyone in the county attending his funeral, if only to see for themselves that the sumbitch was dead.”

“In orderly fashion, the long line of people in their Sunday best filed by Jim Bob Hattrick’s open casket. Some made a show of spitting on the corpse, but most were content to glare. No one cried, but a few did laugh.”

Which one is telling, and which one is showing?

Ok, it was a trick question. They’re both telling.

In each case there was something I wanted the reader to know about Jim Bob Hattrick, and in both cases I told the reader what it was. The only difference is, in the second example it was just a little less obvious that this was what I was doing. It was also less clear. No doubt there are better ways to put the information out than that second example, but to some degree or other they’re all going to suffer from the limitations of context and interpretation. Maybe everyone’s acting this way because Jim Bob managed to accidentally piss a lot people off. Probably not, since most would have simply stayed home, but it’s a reasonable alternate explanation. There is no alternative reasonable explanation in example one. That’s clear as a bell, and just about the only thing that could contradict it in the story context is an unreliable narrator.

I’ve had this harped at me one too many times coming up, and I keep hearing the same thing now: Telling Allways bad! Showing Allways Good!

Like many a piece of advice that’s stood the test of time, it’s true—or at least, it’s true some of the time. Perhaps even most of the time. We’ve all read stories that cover all the bases, tell the reader everything they need to know, but read dull and flat because they’re almost all narrative and evoke next to nothing in the inner eye.  But here’s the thing to remember about telling vs showing—it is at heart a false dichotomy. It’s ALL telling. The only difference being that sometimes you don’t want it to be quite so obvious that this is what you’re doing. So you disguise it. You create an illusion, which is what we do. We trick the reader into thinking she’s seeing a scene unfold, and not reading words on a page that are helping her create that scene and, to the extent your skill allows, carrying information that you want the reader to have for reasons that, in your judgment, best serve the story. It’s a skill and a tool, but that’s all. Which is always best? The question is meaningless, because neither is always best. It depends on what the story requires. Experience quickly teaches that you don’t use a chisel to do a saw’s job, and sometimes you need a chisel and sometimes you need a saw.

And sometimes you need to just tell the reader that Jim Bob Hattrick was a pure quill bastard, and then get on with it. The story knows what it requires. J.G. Ballard is alleged to have once said, “The Book is king.”  That applies to stories of any length. You learn the rules, but when the time comes to decide, you listen to the story and give it what it needs. That’s all.

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