Bones of Contention: an occasional series

(2) Show don’t tell

I’ve been thoroughly irritated by this advice ever since an agent accused me of ignoring it. It seems to me a neat formula trotted out blithely. So I want to examine and challenge it. First, is the distinction between showing and telling as clear as this maxim suggests? We might concede that we see a kind of distinction here, but is it easily spotted? Showing is surely a form of telling and vice versa; the two blend almost imperceptibly. Open any piece of fiction and I guarantee you will find long passages where the line between showing and telling is blurred almost to the point of invisibility.

But even if we grant the distinction, is telling always to be avoided? Clearly most writers don’t think so. Again, open any piece of fiction. I suppose we might agree that direct speech is stronger than reported speech, but aren’t there occasions, even here, when the latter, for the sake of stylistic variation, is preferable? David Lodge goes further and suggests that telling can be used very effectively as the main mode in a narrative: “The summary narrative method seems to suit our modern taste for irony, pace and pithiness” (The Art of Fiction, Chapter 27). Moreover, as he argues, without an element of telling a novel could become interminable, or its effects ruined (see his previous chapter on Fielding’s expert use of summary).

Yet without going that far, some fiction clearly suffers from too much showing. I have a suspicion that this is what the English critic James Wood had in mind when he accused Zadie Smith’s fiction (which in general he admires) of “hysterical realism”. He applies the term to writing that “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being” – a remark that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s criticism, in her essay “Modern Fiction”, of writing that is bang-on in every detail but somehow misses the essence.

So I was delighted when a tutor on a writing course, after telling us to inscribe the maxim in capitals at the head of our notes, then instructed us to strike it through. I told him that I had always thought the adage needed reformulating. He said he agreed and we swapped revised versions that turned out to be quite similar. I forget his, but here’s mine: “Show when appropriate, tell when appropriate.”

Next time: Point of View.

24. Jun 2019
Les Brookes
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