Where's the real story? Not where you expected?
The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 5: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré

Showing and Telling: cooperation not competition

First, can we get get a few things straight?

  • Writing is not an exact science. It's not even an exact art.
  • So it's next-to-impossible to say, "Doing X is Telling, doing Y is Showing", because "Telling" and "Showing" are convenient but wildly over-simple labels for effects on the reader which are achieved by a complex of means.  Sorry.
  • I prefer to call Telling "Informing" and sometimes "Explaining", and Showing "Evoking". Those are also over-simple, of course, but still, I think they help.
  • Any text worth reading has writing which Tells, as well as writing which Shows. So you can ignore anyone who says otherwise.
  • And therefore my response to the worried aspiring writer, bloodied and bowed from their writer's circle or an editorial report, who asks "Is this really Telling and should I change it?" will probably be something like "Well, it's a bit Tell-y [if it is], but at this point that's maybe the right thing to be doing, so let's think how you might do it better ... ".

As soon as you realise how possible it is to make your Telling Show-y, the distinction begins to collapse. And take this example, which was posted by one of the writers doing our latest Self-Editing Your Novel course:

I don't know if it was the people getting up--which made the gallery seem to heave about; or the shrieking woman; or the sight of Nancy, lying perfectly pale and still at Bill Sykes's feet; but I became gripped by an awful terror. I thought we should all be killed. I began to scream, and Flora could not quiet me. And when the woman who had called out put her arms around me and smiled, I screamed louder. Then Flora began to weep--she was only twelve or thirteen, I suppose. She took me home and Mrs Sucksby slapped her.

 It's from Sarah Waters' wonderful Fingersmith, and it's a lovely example of why the crude distinction between Showing and Telling doesn't get you much further. So let's unpick it a bit.

the gallery seemed to heave about is, I'd say, very Show-y: physical, in the moment, very much how it would feel. And here seemed is entirely necessary, not a dispensable piece of filtering. Same with things like shrieking, pale and still, screamweep, screamed, slapped. (Notice how they're mostly verbs? Well-chosen verbs probably make more difference to the vividness of a scene than anything else.)

So what about She took me home? No stumbling through lamplit streets or reeking alleyways here, but I think most of us would say this was a perfectly sensible bit of Telling: information about something which the writer has decided doesn't need any more detail than that. And Flora could not quiet me, though also information more than evocation, does have the vividness that voice brings to a narrative because a) the simplicity suits the fact that this is memory, and of a child's experience; you could even say that it's free indirect style: older-Sue's narrative is being coloured by child-Sue's voice b) quiet used as a verb (verbs again) breathe the period, without in any way being consciously olde worlde.

Then there's I became gripped by an awful terror. Put that in your story, and many a writer's circle would cry that it's Telling. Where's her thumping heart, her clammy palms, her metaphorical sense of a monster looming over her? Well, the narrator is telling a story. Sometimes when we tell stories we explain what's happening, rather than evoking it. Especially when we're a nineteenth-century girl (albeit one being ventriloquised by a twentieth-century novelist) writing in a world shaped for us and for its inhabitants by the words of Dickens, Conan Doyle, J S LeFanu and Poe.

And the same goes for phrases where, for example, narrator-Sue informs us that I thought we should all be killed. Should this thought be in Free Indirect Style or even be directly quoted? Should this whole passage not have been shifted from narrator-Sue fully into child-Sue's experience in the moment?

No, it shouldn't. We are conscious creatures and so we experience life in two layers - the experience, and the consciousness of the experience. We tell our lives to ourselves even as we're immersed in what life shows us. The proportions of the two vary constantly, of course: with the battlefield, and the heart-to-heart with a friend, being at the opposite ends of the spectrum. But as far as I'm concerned, the double-layered narrative is virtually always more exciting to read than the single one because it's more like our real experience. And that, really, is why Showing and Telling co-operate in any good narrative: they do the same in life.

One more thought, which you may have had when you read her thumping heart, her clammy palms, her metaphorical sense of a monster looming over her. The Show-y, Evoke-y ways to narrate, say, fear, are always at risk of becoming what I call signals . Even if not quite clichés, the fact that they do the job nicely means an awful lot of writers have already used them to do that job. They're efficient, off-the-peg, second-hand, tired. The reader gets it, and moves too swiftly on, before the moment has time to flower in their own consciousness. So I'd suggest that if you can't find a good, first-hand way to evoke an event while keeping the story moving forwards, think about whether you might work with voice, period, information and your narrator's own nature to Tell that event instead.