Once Upon a Time…
Iconic words. Yet are they show or tell?
I’m not here to explain to you what the differences are. I’m sure you’ve heard it often enough from websites instructing you how to write and especially from publishers and agents. It jumps out at you from submission guidelines and rejections letters.
Don’t tell us! Show us! I disagree. A book isn’t a film. Unless it’s a picture book, it’s all telling. It suggests that readers are stupid and can only have their prose directed at them a certain way. It’s an insult.
Make no mistake, the edict of showing is merely a trend. Yes it can be an effective form of storytelling, but it is merely one method.
There are so many examples of telling a story throughout the history of literature that it’s hard to know where to begin. Simply flick through any variety of classics. Oh but that’s how it used to be done, I hear you say. Here are two modern first pages, chosen quickly from my bookshelf without having to hunt for an example.
Aish would think him a pervert if she had overhead him. But he was definitely not that. He simply loved women. Young, old, those just starting to blossom and those beginning to fade.
From Page 1 of The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, Winner of the 2009 Commonwealth writers prize.
Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier.
Jonathan Franzen’s multi award winning, Freedom.
If the aforementioned authors had listened to these so called experts, these great works would not exist. It’s a wonder anyone can tackle a blank page with such stringent advice. The first timer bends over backwards to tick all the prerequisites (and there are many) and still finds themselves at the bottom of the slush pile. So follow your gut. You have to be satisfied with your work, not gratify some unseen entity that will only provide you with a cut and paste response months later, if you’re lucky.
Telling is an effective tool in itself. It can shift the focus of the story from one scene to the next without unnecessary explanations. One can provide a quick backstory, while still staying in the moment, such as the examples above. Guaranteed, if these authors were unknowns, their work would be rejected on the basis of Tell and not Show.
An author should not feel constrained. As the saying goes, learn the rules and then dismiss them. Creativity emerges in many forms. In fact, a combination of styles can make for compelling story telling. There are really only a couple of basics. The story should have highest priority, if not the characters. Everything else is irrelevant. Too often in recent times this all-pervading rule is thrown out there, confusing the novice writer and dismissing potentially exciting works from more established writers. We should all be wary of the One Rule Applies to All dictations thrown at us by the safe, lazy and ill-informed. I guarantee their lives are just as conservative and rule bound. The unspoken philosophy of show business is nobody knows nuthin.
Those in power hold too much of it. Writers bend over backwards to please them, hoping to get a foot in the door, yet often undermine their work by subjecting it to the whims of (usually) a single individual. Show vs Tell is a literal slicing tool, a light sabre for publishers to cut through the mountain of submissions. Oh that’s Tell, Not Show. Slice. Vader would be proud. It is true that publishers and agents are swamped by submissions these days but that’s not the fault of the writer. It is due to industry cutbacks. This occurred long before the insecurities of digital publishing.
Publishers fired most of their in-house editors and slush piles saps. They now take their recommendations through an agent so it’s left to them to sort through the pile and they do not have the time either. They look for any excuse to dismiss a novel. They are lucky to read the first page. In fact, many don't bother at all. I guarantee that thousands of great novels have been passed over. It’s always been a selective and flawed system yet works are now more likely to slip through.
The truth remains that publishers don’t know what readers want. We’ve seen it time and time again where literary smash hits come from left field, such as recent (albeit terrible) fare such as 50 Shades, works that ‘snuck through the back door.’ This is not a great example but it does illustrate that no matter how bad the writing, it’s the content that matters. No one wants to see a flood of badly written books, but the point has been made. Rules count for naught.
Alternatively go back through the decades and look at some of the works that have become classics and the authors who wrote them. Take note of how many times they were rejected due in part to such inane philosophies as Show vs Tell.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – 18 rejections
M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker - 21
Dubliners by James Joyce – (18 times to 15 publishers)
Dune by Frank Herbert – 23
Dr. Suess – 27 times
Carrie by Stephen King – 30 (famously threw it in the bin. His wife saved it).
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen - 140 rejections
C.S. Lewis received over 800 rejections before he sold a single piece of writing.
Staggering, isn’t it?
It doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is great, however there are lessons here.
Academics have long been dissecting creative works and coming up with terminology’s and strategy’s that the authors apparently implemented. The creative designers know better. James Joyce famously said that Ulysses would have academics in stitches for decades. He was right.
Show vs Tell has its merits, yet essentially it’s a silly little edict which has snowballed due to non-writers jumping on the bandwagon with a desperate need to appear relevant. This blanket approach is reaching out across the world like simplistic social media speak, creating a universal language of blandness. I say to hell with that. Be bold. Be original. Let the story and characters dictate the work. If the story is engaging who cares how it is told?
Writers should always go with their instincts. If it must incorporate a variety of styles, so be it. If the story lends itself to the style of telling, does it really matter? There are no rules for literature, just as there are no rules for art. Yet it is important to read, research, edit and work hard. Instil self-belief, be strong, be daring and above all, be yourself.
‘Books are well written, or badly written, that is all.'