Thursday, November 20, 2008

The show and tell police

As an aspiring writer, I have to deal a lot with the old 'show and tell' debate. There's more bullshit talked about this than any other aspect of creative writing. 'Never tell,' we're told; 'always show'. And as a result writers go to ridiculously convoluted lengths in order to 'show' their reader some perfectly unexceptional point.

Anyway, here's a quote from Fanny Herself, an engrossing book by Edna Ferber from 1917. It tells the story of Fanny, a very determined young woman who has a vision and gift for art, but who is gradually losing sight of it - and her underlying humanity - as she goes in search of greater and greater success in commerce. She has always done beautiful character drawings of people in the street, somehow drawing their souls on paper. The quote:

She rarely prowled the city now. She told
herself she was too tired at night, and on Sundays and
holidays, and I suppose she was. Indeed, she no longer saw
things with her former vision. It was as though her soul
had shriveled in direct proportion to her salary's
expansion. The streets seldom furnished her with a rich
mental meal now. When she met a woman with a child, in the
park, her keen eye noted the child's dress before it saw the
child itself, if, indeed, she noticed the child at all.

Now, in the hands of a Coetzee, or a creative writing acolyte, that would never have done. 'It's all tell,' they'd squeal. We need to be shown. So we would have had to have two scenes here, one early in the book where she draws a picture of a woman and her young daughter, and the child is showing off her brand new frock or something touchingly poignant. Probably she'd give the picture to the woman and there would be tears. Move forward to the next scene, where, let's say, a child falls and makes a rip in her nice new dress, but Fanny is too busy talking to someone about the cost of fabric to even notice it.

Hammy? Yup? Boring? Yup. But we've been 'shown', so it's okay. Instead of that crap, Edna Ferber just tells us what has happened to Fanny's thinking and carries on with the story. We have that fact now, and the true emotions behind it will now be neatly shown in the remaining sections of the book.

That's show and tell. Tell is as important as show - in context.


Jim Murdoch said...

I suppose a lot of it has to do with what I'm being told. If it's interesting then I'm fine with it. Personally I never think about it. But thinking about it now most of my short stories have next to no action in them and most are monologues.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Jim
Yes I agree. I can't be bothered with action being slowed down by extraneous episodes which are purely designed to "show" what could happily be told in a sentence.

And yes, I recognise the lack of action problem. Plot has never been my strong point. I also seem to have an inordinate number of stories which revolve around two people walking along a beach.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I wonder if the tide is turning? For Jhumpa Lahiri to win a Pulitzer and now the Frank O Connor Prize for her short story collections with work that is largely exposition, things must have shifted.

And maybe one has to learn to read differently. To appreciate different things. I enjoy Cotzee... not for the show n tell silliness as described above, but for the lucidity.

Alex Keegan said...

You're all arguing about something that doesn't really exist.

Show-Tell is and was a Mickey-Mouse dichotomy

That's why I use Seduction-Instruction as the see-saw.

Surely you agree a story must SEDUCE 100% of the time? Would you argue for passages deliberately placed to make us stop reading and give up? No?

The allegedly expositional passage you say is almost 100% tell I think is almost pure SHOW (much as I hate the show-tell split)

When a beginner "tells" or instructs it is almost always HORRIBLE.

You would say when an ARTIST "tells" it can be beautiful

But if it's "beautiful" it's SEDUCING, and if it's beautiful THERE IS MORE THERE THAN THE SIMPLE THING BEING STATED

And if there is more there than the simple thing being stated, EVEN IF SUPERFICIALLY IT ALL APPEARS TO BE "TELL" (or exposition) IT ISN'T

Let me use an old, simple example.

I write a fine-detailed, deeply-explanatory, "boring" report of an old man cleaning his house. I go into fantastic detail about HOW he cleans, WHAT he cleans, WHY he cleans, and if that is all there is, any normal reader would say it is 100% excruciatingly boring "TELL"

But then, after three pages of this, we see the character step over his dead wife and continue cleaning. We write this in such a way it's "obvious" that the dead wife was there during those three "boring" pages.

Now they are NOT tell. They are 100% SHOW, showing us his denial, or senility, or madness.

You cannot judge writing solely on whether it is factual, expositional.

What raises it is

1. Is there stuff unsaid but implied?

2. Is the MANNER of saying meaningful?

3. Does the context invert the "facts"?

There's more but those 3 will do for starters.


Alex Keegan said...

I should add.

99.99% of the show-tell police are morons who probably don't truly understand the concept.


Alex Keegan said...

You set me off now!

That passage really isn't tell. I've posted the passage a little bit more "telly" at the end of this

She rarely prowled the city now.

What is explicit here, what is IMPLICIT?

OK we know bare facts. Once she used to go out in the city more than she does now.

But what’s IMPLICIT? What about “PROWLED”? Is that an average word or does it imply a bucketload of facts?

She told herself she was too tired at night,

That “tells us” she tells herself, so HOW COME WE KNOW it’s not the truth? We also by implication can see she works hard and is tired to some extent.

and on Sundays and holidays, and I suppose she was.

Why “suppose she was”? Doesn’t that tell us that the issue is MORE THAN mere tiredness?

Indeed, she no longer saw things with her former vision.

This could be expanded. It isn’t complete. Things are implied. It’s a TARDIS sentence.

It was as though her soul had shrivelled in direct proportion to her salary's expansion.

Metaphor. How can a metaphor be tell? This is the only part of this book I’ve read and yet I see someone who has lost their way, turned from a soulful path by drive, ambition, money. How is that TOLD to me?

The streets seldom furnished her with a rich mental meal now.

So, it’s not about TIREDNESS, it’s about her ability to see and feel things. She has lost or is losing her soul? Have I been explicitly told this or is it between the words, behind the words? Am I able to sit passively and be instructed or do I have to do mental math to fully understand?

If the latter, the meaning is IMPLICIT, and that ISN’T tell

When she met a woman with a child, in the park, her keen eye noted the child's dress before it saw the child itself, if, indeed, she noticed the child at all.

The fact that she could “miss” the actual child is something we pick up as an extra, a piece of characterisation. Here is a woman who is losing the ability to see “life” and is seeing “things”.

Is that STATED? Is that TOLD to us?

This is closer to “tell”

Previously she wandered the streets, desperate for experience. She need to see everything, the people, the colour, the places. She did not do that now.

Her excuse for no longer “prowling the streets” was that she was too tired with the burden of her work. She was tired after work of course, but not as tired as she pretended. It was a poor excuse. She would make the same excuse on weekends, even on Sunday after a long, restful Saturday. It was just that, an excuse, a self-lie. She did not wish to admit the truth which was that work and all its demands took her further and further into a cold soulless way of seeing the world. She did not wish to admit that her previous insights had been swamped by the coldness of her ambitions. She would not admit that she had all but killed her vision. As her salary had grown, so had her previous abilities diminished as if she had sold the former to buy the latter.

Once, light of mind and soul she would have seen so much. The sights sounds and smells, and especially the light in people, would have filled her up like good food. Now the streets were empty to her. If she met a woman with a child, in the
park, she would notice the child's clothing in great detail but the child wearing the clothing was of no consequence, merely another thing.