The Long and Short of Show and Tell

In the inner sanctum of MFA programs and scattered across the pages of numerous ‘how to’ books, there are ‘rules’ for modern writers. In fact, there are sacrosanct commandments.

1. Thou shalt show, not tell, and do it in the active voice with a hook.

2. Thou shalt not sketch or summarize thy characters.

3. Thou shalt not hop heads and deviate from one point of view.

4. Thou shalt honor proportion and strive for balance in both exposition and dialog.

5. Thou shalt maintain authentic and true speech appropriate to thy characters.

6. Thou shalt be wary of false intimacy from interior monologues.

7. Thou shalt use beats.

8. Thou shalt not let thy paragraphs grow to more than a half-page.

9. Thou shalt avoid repetition.

10. Thou shalt not use adverbs and the As and –ing construction.

‘Honor thy copyeditor, proofreader, and line editor’ did not make the list. Most publishing houses have had Stalinist purges in the wake of Amazon and takeovers by media companies and conglomerates. There are no editors; there are ‘agents.’ The determined writer goes solo and self-publishes, potentially earns the disdain of agents and big-time publishers, or tries the heroic and seeks an agent, builds a body of publications, and hopes for the best. Few writers, however, can afford to hire out a professional editor. Authors who do make it inside the hallowed halls of the Big Six may have to do all of their own editing and marketing, though. They’ll do more work for less take-home pay. They’ll have all the prestige they can eat, and they’ll pray that they do not fall into the midlist doldrums. The bottom line is that the writing has to be good, damn good, and sell.

But why these rules and why ‘show and not tell’ in particular as the paramount rule of Writing 101? The short answer suggests that readers need to be engaged, ushered into the story, where the acts of interpretation will rest with the reader. Don’t tell the reader that the car is a wreck. Show him the impotent windshield wiper raking the glass; show her the foot going through the rusted-out floorboard or have them visualize the awful but valiant drive down the treacherous street.

But ‘show and not tell’ obscures a change in aesthetics, which is a fancy way of saying that tastes have changed even though readers have always enjoyed a good story, however that is defined. Three questions I pose here are 1) Why the change? 2) When did it change? 3) What does it signify? I’ll answer the second question first: the change-up in the rules of the craft is relatively recent.

Look at two examples of ‘telling,’ since ‘showing’ is much more difficult to analyze, often accomplished with different techniques. ‘Telling,’ while it can get nuanced, is often straightforward exposition.

Example 1

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word.

Example 2

Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions again by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again.

Two sentences from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) in Example 1, and two sentences from Ernest Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River: Part I (1925) in Example 2 demonstrate two different styles: one is poetic; the other, simpler and leaner. Both passages are contemporary, vivid, have their own rhythm. Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, appears a year later. The Twenties marks when the change occurred.

The ‘Hemingway style’ is journalistic prose, accessible for its monosyllabic words, and very American, lean and homespun. It is economical and the tip of the iceberg, suggesting that there is more than meets the eye. Fitzgerald’s prose, by contrast, is distant and glamorous; romantic, but not quite over the top. Practical and pragmatic are trustworthy. Idealistic and intellectual are suspicious.

The ‘Show, don’t tell’ edict implies that the writer respects his or her reader. The modern and revised compact between author and reader states that the author will not condescend and tell the reader what to think and how to think with a given piece of information: be it narrative or dialog. The irony, however, is that all writing is a form of seduction and trickery. The revised agreement between author and reader is the triumph of the Hemingway style.

The historical context for why is this: Hemingway wrote in reaction against five-dollar words, Victorian gasbags, and particularly eschewed dense periodic sentences with long-winding clauses, multiple commas, and the never-ending descent into subordination. He is the antithesis of Henry James. Hemingway stripped the fat in his prose to get that “one true sentence.” He pierced the bloated style of his predecessors to create a new writer’s ethic. Hadley Richardson, one of Hemingway’s four wives, recalled: “James was a scurrilous word in our household.” The profligate Fitzgerald, by the way, would light his cigarettes with five-dollar bills.

‘Show and do not tell’ seems to be an American rule. We are the sons and daughters of Hemingway. Not that ‘bestseller’ should be equated with literary merit, but peruse British authors, or other European authors in translation, and you’ll discover that there is a lot more ‘telling’ and a lot less ‘showing’ on the other side of the night table. One example: J.K. Rowling. Another? John Le Carré. Neither author has to worry about their next cup of tea. Is the matter merely cultural? Sociological? A different set of commandments? What does this change in ‘taste’ signify?

I think that it is both cultural and sociological. Nonfiction has usurped fiction as that forum in which authors address social issues. Once upon a time novels, like The Grapes of Wrath, The Jungle, To Kill A Mockingbird, tackled maltreatment, exposed corruption, and reviled racism, respectively. Today’s bestselling authors, Danielle Steel, Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, and Sue Grafton are examples of a new breed of writer: the mega-author. They are more than celebrities; they are franchises. They are a “brand.” For those who charge publishing with sexism; consider this: EL James (50 Shades of Grey) and Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) are sisters and account for 25% of all book sales. These mega-authors dominate the charts and their writing styles and themes dictate what sells online and in the bookstores. Whether they are “literature” or “entertainment” is not the point: These writers are good at what they do and they do it well. Otherwise, readers would have dropped them long ago and their names would have fallen into obscurity. They all know how to tell a story. They all know how to keep the reader turning the pages. Regardless of the ‘style,’ J.K. Rowling is correct: “There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”

Horror. Mystery. Suspense thrillers. Change is fact of life and art; but it signifies direction and destination. In 1964, Harper’s Magazine published The Paranoid Style in American Politics. In the essay, the American historian Richard J. Hofstadter suggested that paranoia was wired into the American psyche. Any one of Don DeLillo’s books substantiates that thesis. I’d add to Hofstadter’s idea this one: that instant gratification and a need for steady-state stimulation is an integral part of the American psyche. The popularity of hyper-realistic television shows supports the emendment to Hofstadter’s discussion. The bestsellers list is not only a barometer of what sells, but a menu of what readers consume for sustenance. We are what we eat metaphorically.

‘Showing’ presupposes critical thinking, the ability to reason and evaluate. Without some ‘telling,’ though, the reader’s imagination is potentially adrift without context, and is stuck forever in medias res. American impatience with too much ‘telling,’ with dialog that goes on for more than five lines is a form of literary Attention Deficit Disorder. ‘Telling’ is bad because it is slow. ‘Showing’ is good because it moves.

The proof for literary ADD is the slow death of the short story. I don’t mean that the form is dying, but that it is shrinking. Edgar Allan Poe defined the short story as a tale that should be “read in one sitting,” in about half an hour to one or two hours. Literary journals online call for limits of three to five thousand words per story. Occasionally a journal might allow a story of seven thousand words, but that is rare. Poe’s shortest short story, The Oval Portrait, is 1,279 words. Indiana blogger and interface designer Steph Mineart calculated and tabulated the word count for 161 short stories – most of them from the nineteenth century – and the result is that 4052 was the average word count. The word count is reasonable but most of those ‘classic’ nineteenth-century stories do a lot more ‘telling’ than ‘showing.’ An online literary journal does not have print costs to fret over, so word count should not matter. A seven-thousand-word short story is kilobytes in the ether.

With the downsizing of the short story, the story also has to hit the ground running. All show, no tell. There is no coaxing, no warming up. In other words, there is no foreplay. Flash fiction or micro-fiction is the literary version of hit-and-run. In the literary landscape where 7,500 words is the outer limit of an acceptable submission, the theory should hold that current short-story writers, such as Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, and William Trevor would no longer see their work accepted and published. One could only imagine the rejection slips for short-story writers from the past, such as Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, Joseph Mitchell, Flannery O’Connor, and Katherine Anne Porter.

Twain joked: “All things in moderation, including moderation.” All ‘show’ without some ‘telling’ leads the reader into ambiguity. It takes imagination and critical intelligence to read subtext in dialogue, assuming that the author’s characters are drawn well and are two-dimensional. John O’Hara and George V. Higgins ‘show’ through nuanced conversations, often with very little to no exposition and exhausting their readers because there is no break in the action.

Is ‘show and tell’ strictly an American phenomenon? I think so. Readers have had the wisdom to support the writers who break the rules so that they can continue to grow as writers. The question now is how writers get discovered and read in an evolving market. However the writer comes to market, whether self-published, indie-published, or through one of the Big Six, the writing has to be good, but what determines ‘good writing’ has aesthetic considerations that say more about us than what we read. I do not think that “the commandments” are wrong, but I question who makes the rules and why. As for another set of rules, I defer once again to Hemingway. This excerpt is from his Green Hills Of Africa.

‘The kind of writing that can be done. How far prose can be carried if anyone is serious enough and has luck. There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten.’

‘You believe it?’

‘I know it.’

‘And if a writer can get this?’

‘Then nothing else matters. It is more important than anything he can do. The chances are, of course, that he will fail. But there is a chance that he succeeds.’

‘But that is poetry you are talking about.’

‘No. It is much more difficult than poetry. It is a prose that has never been written. But it can be written, without tricks and without cheating. With nothing that will go bad afterwards.’

‘And why has it not been written?’

‘Because there are too many factors. First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive. Try to get all these in one person and have him come through all the influences that press on a writer. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done. But I would like us to have such a writer and to read what he would write. What do you say? Should we talk about something else?’


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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One Response to The Long and Short of Show and Tell

  1. Susan Ostrem says:

    I really enjoyed this piece so much so, that I forwarded it to a friend who edits for two of her friends. I very much agree with what you had to say.

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