Saturday, October 6, 2007

Showing vs. Telling: The Dramatic Showdown

I'd say it's high time I wrote another writing-centric blog entry, don't you agree, internets? Quite right, quite right, just give me a minute to adjust my monocle and handlebar mustache here.

There we are.

Well then, let's get on with it, shall we? Now writers, writing instructors, students, and the rest of that general lot've been having quite the argument for some time now. This argument? It could only be the eternal question of "showing" versus "telling" when writing fiction. After all, clearly one must be better than the other, and those who opt to use the other are all, quite simply, wrong. It's easy to think that way, of course, when you've a few thousand bats in the old belfry, and processing more complicated thought - and writing - processes suddenly seem archaic, bourgeois, and without a doubt, too much work. We can't be wracking our brains over our wordosity now, can we? There's homeland security thrillers to write! Someone has to cash in on the popularity of terror talk these days, after all.

So you see, I called you all here today to discuss this very subject - and also to solve that murderer, but I'm certain that by now we're all in agreement that it couldn't be anyone but Colonel Mustard. Isn't that right, Professor Plum? But I digress.

This showing and this telling, these are words - particularly when forced to square off against one another in a cage match, as they often are - that cause any writer worth their salt quite the headache, for in essence, this argument only dumbs down the entire craft of fiction writing. The craft itself, after all, is far more elaborate than merely being a matter of one or the other. At best, you'd weave both of these gross generalizations together, then cast them aside in the name of your own personal style - you do want to write something meaningful, after all, do you not? At worst, you'll write something entirely one-dimensional, that comes across as though it were written by a high school or college student. And this never-ending struggle of the showing and the telling is often imparted by writing instructors - do not be fooled! It is a lie. It is a trap. It is a guideline that far too many who seek to become better writers take to heart, when it is their heart itself that should guide their hand as they articulate their thoughts in the absurdity of language. Mind you, this author believes we should have cast off words long ago and instead learned to communicate by rhythmically slapping our knees - like all geniuses, you'll look back upon me someday and think to yourselves "That lad was far ahead of his time." But by then, you'll have reduced language to making motorboat noises with your mouthes. For shame.

Granted, simpler, lesser-dimensional writing has its place on the market - and many who make their passion working with words do fall prey to avarice, upon tasting success in the mainstream market - you wouldn't have to look far to find less than spectacular literature on bookstore shelves and bestseller lists. As in all fields, quality and popularity are quite the different beasts. Regardless of success, however, a lack of depth does not good writing - let alone storytelling - make. By that token, you'd think you could make a killing writing children's books, considering all the crap people foist on the young ones - just this past week on The Daily Show, John Oliver talked to authors trying to indoctrinate children with hatred for liberals and conservatives while they're far too young to understand what that even means. But even those fellows have come under heavy fire for try to do just that. Perhaps the conservative author's next book will focus on teaching children to support murder companies like Blackwater over those dirty heathens who don't believe in Jesus who dared to cross their path. Of course cutting them down in a hail of gunfire was the correct response. According to the last memo I got, civility and sympathy are now unamerican - and top indicators that you might just be a member of Al-Qaeda. But then, so is the right's mantra about everything human these days.

Ultimately, chiding someone to "show," not "tell," in their writing is simply something said by people unable to differentiate between bad writing with a good story to tell, and a good story being told through quality writing. (And bad stories with quality writing certainly exist too. Many never take the time to sit down and ask themselves, "is this worth writing?" And to ask it while not looking at potential for publishing and sales, but into their heart.) Everyone has to start somewhere. And "show, don't tell" is little more than an easy catchphrase to remember. The best writers know when and how to best do each. And everyone else? Turkeys, the whole lot of 'em. Where did that voice I started writing in go? Oh well.

Don't you all just love it when a writer writes about the craft, and in the process does nothing but talk down to any and all potential readers as though they were recovering from a brain embolism?


Josh K. Singh said...

Am I thus lucky that no one ever taught me how to write? I dare say so, given that I'm not sure I understood a damn thing in this piece.

Granted, I would be a publisher's call girl given the chance.

Benjamin Fennell said...

I probably should've actually gone into some detail on what's implied by these phrases, but I figured it was okay to give it a pass, as most people who write, at least, have heard them at some point.

In short, telling is when you're writing a story where the narrative is effectively only telling the reader what happened. Showing, on the other hand, is drawing the reader into the moment itself, rather than simply telling them about something that happened in the story. But it's a pretty common mantra amongst instructors to only do one and never the other, when there's plenty of cases where telling is perfectly acceptable, and preferable. Hell, I've noticed that many great authors I've read do it quite a bit throughout their narratives.

Josh K. Singh said...

Interesting. Something I've never really given thought to myself. In fact it's probably better for me to not put further thought into it. I might ruin myself.

Certainly, though, one reason I've never actually studied writing is because I've always believed that only the writer knows when it's best to tell and when it's best to show (among other things). Trying to teach someone how to write seems to me like trying to teach her how to draw or act.

Ah, the mechanization of soul. Formula for beauty.