Show and Tell: What You Didn’t Get Taught in Class
by Cheryl Whittaker Views: 1968
A couple of months ago, Mash Blog interviewed Calum Kerr on how to write compelling flash fiction. And the article itself proved to be compelling – generating a good deal of activity. In fact, we appreciated Calum’s advice so much that we invited him back to dig deeper into the methods involved in crafting a story.
We’ve all read fiction where, at a certain moment, we feel “pulled out” of the story – no longer deeply invested in it, and suddenly conscious of the fact that we are reading as opposed to seeing the events unfold with our own eyes, or being in the thick of the intrigue. We’re being told what to think instead of being allowed to arrive at our own conclusions. Sometimes it’s difficult to put one’s finger on how it’s happening; other times, it’s painfully obvious. In the recent Intelligence Squared podcast on good writing, Steven Pinker gave an example of “incompetent fiction” from his lawyer’s attempt at a novel – and it’s a clear one:
“The detective pulled up in front of the shabby house.”
Pinker’s response: don’t say “shabby house”; say there was a “rusting chain-link fence, half-off one of its hinges.” This will “give the reader enough credit to figure out… that’s what you mean by ‘shabby’.” In Pinker’s words, it’s better to “allow the reader to visualise exactly what you’re talking about.”
One piece of advice broadly touted by teachers, editors, judges and amateur critics is “show, don’t tell”, and in the face of examples like the above, it’s easily understandable.
But in this article, Calum discusses how the emphasis placed on “show, don’t tell” actually denies a very important aspect of building a story. Telling can be just as important if done well, argues Calum – particularly when it comes to flash fiction.
The Telling Show
by Calum Kerr
Before I start I need to put my cards on the table. This is because I am going to be doing a bit of “writers say…” and “creative writing tutors say…” and, knowing me, probably talking about flash fiction a lot.
I feel able to do these things because I am a writer – of flash fiction mostly – a creative writing tutor (lecturer, academic: pick your term) and have a lot of experience of talking to other writers, and writing students, and anyone who will listen, about my craft. It is, after all, what we do.
Oh, and writing. Sometimes writing.
And why do I feel the need to be so honest?
Well, this is because I am about to tackle one of the holy cows of writing and the teaching of writing and demonstrate that it is not much more than a cardboard cut-out, and not a very well-propped one at that.
I am, of course, talking about the injunction that every tutor will have given at some point, and every student will have likewise heard. You know the one. The one that goes: “Show, don’t Tell”.
It has been said so many times that it has become almost a cliché in its own right. It is taken as a gospel truth and one of the few real “rules” of writing. And, I’m sorry, but I don’t quite buy it.
Which is not to say that it’s not good to Show things rather than Tell them. There is, after all, a wealth of difference between:
“Bob was sad because Julie had left him.”
“Bob walked through from the kitchen and paused in the door of the lounge and looked around. He remembered other times in the room, sitting on the sofa, sharing wine and crisps. And more. He sat down in the space Julie used to occupy and placed his hand upon the cool fabric. His gaze fixed on the dead screen of the television as his mind traced its own lonely path.”
even though, at a basic level, they are the same thing. The second paragraph isn’t really moving the plot forward. We presumably already know that Julie has gone, and we aren’t much beyond that information at the end. However, what we do have here is a wealth of colour and texture and insight into Bob’s character that we didn’t have before.
Also, the reader has been allowed to feel the emotion for themselves, rather than being told what to feel. And that is a key point. Readers (and I know, because I’m one too) don’t like being told what they should think or feel, and that’s what Telling really does.
In the first example above, the reader’s reaction is probably going to be “Oh, he’s sad. That makes sense. Poor Bob.” But there is going to be no emotional engagement.
The second example, hopefully, is going to engage the reader’s imagination, place them in Bob’s shoes, remind them of similar times in their own life and garner a reaction which is more “Oh, yeah, Poor old Bob. I’ve been there, mate, it sucks.” And they’ll read on because now they feel attached to the character.
So far, so good. The argument for the status quo has been defended. And it is a good argument. I am not saying that “Show, don’t Tell” is a bad rule. Many, many times, it is only going to make for better writing.
But, as is always the case, that’s not the whole story. And it’s not something we talk about very often, because the idea that SHOWING > TELLING has become so ingrained in our minds, but Telling is just as important as the other thing and without it stories would grind to a halt.
It seems obvious, of course, that if you attempted to tell even a modest story all in the style of example two then it would take longer. Much longer. Every detail? Really? Laden with this much description, this much baggage? Your character would barely be out of bed and out of the door and it would be time for Volume Two.
So, yes, sometimes we just need to say “He drank his coffee and left the house. Twenty minutes later he was in town.” Otherwise we’d never get anywhere.
Which is not to say that Showing is always longer. It’s just that there is some information we just don’t need.
And, in flash fiction writing – where brevity is kinda the whole point – this becomes even more important. If we only have 500 words to play with, we need to get in, set our scene, introduce our characters, unfold our plot, and wrap the whole thing up while bringing some depth to it. If we can’t Tell, we’re going to be in trouble.
But, if we only Tell, we don’t even have a story. We have a summary. So we have to Show too.
And this is where the discipline of writing flash fiction leaks out into all writing. Because one of the things that flash often enforces is choosing the key moment, the key event, which can be used to present and explore the whole story. And that is where telling and showing come together with larger ideas such as theme and meaning to create the whole show.
So it’s not about Telling rather than Showing, in the same way that it’s not about Showing rather than Telling. It’s about using both techniques, in harmony, to get to the point of your story and write it in a way which gives your reader all the information they need, but also engages them and draws them into the heart of the tale. And, in the end, if you get it right, you can leave them with a real sense of… well, whatever it was the story was about.*
*With thanks to Douglas Adams for this exquisitely phrased vagueness.
Calum Kerr is a lecturer, writer, editor and Director of National Flash-Fiction Day. His ‘how to’ book, The World in a Flash, is currently available, and the sequel – due out in 2015 – will contain a whole chapter on Telling and Showing.
Our Chief Editor, Cheryl, has been with MASH since day one. Her poetry has appeared in Riot Angel magazine, and one of her short stories was published in This Is It. Cheryl’s creative streak also reaches to art, craft and photography, and her favourite way to combine all these passions is in art journaling and mixed media. You can view Cheryl’s work by visiting her website: www.cswhittaker.com