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.'
I applaud you for this post, Anthony. I am extremely averse to rules. It pains me that so many writers make good money by writing How-to books. I think those are the top selling books, right? People think if they follow a formula, they'll be richly rewarded. Meanwhile, some of us know things don't work that way.ReplyDelete
PS What language is that above? I see some Hebrew-like letters, but it's not Hebrew. Oh, I see "Ramillon" but I don't know what that is. =)
Many writers make their living from doing courses etc because there are so many wannabe writers - it's kind of incestuous lol. I certainly followed a lot of the rules in the beginning. Realisation was slow and painful.ReplyDelete
That was spam, now gone.
I must start to take note now when a story is being told and not shown. I think Justin Cronin does a bit of telling when he is filling in the back story in his novels. The show not tell rule does have some relevance to new writers who might be tempted to write that the hero had a fight with the bad guy and won, instead of actually detailing the fight and showing us what happened. I have read The Slap and Freedom, both great books and never had any problem with how they were written. I will try to take note of show and tell in books I read from now on. Oh and I think my last post in my blog on submissions being rejected unread, might have had some input into this post. I hope I have not disheartened you too much. Keep trying Anthony, you are a very good writer.ReplyDelete
If you look at the "rules" of writing you learn that they are guidelines only. Thanks for this post. So many writers need to hear over and over to trust themselves.You need to be true to you, then you will always succeed no matter what happens.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your comments. Hi Graham - your post did prompt me to post this now - it was written end of last year but it seemed timely. During my submission journey I have been rejected on this rule a couple of times with my short stories and have come across agents and publishers who go on about it. Perhaps I should have mentioned those examples but there are some who swear by it.ReplyDelete
Like Jon said, I wanted to let new writers know to trust their instincts. It's hard enough to write something big like a novel let alone try to get it published.
Only the other day I was reaching the end of a chapter I was writing, where I at first included a summary of what happened next, to try and increase the urgency of the situation, but I thought that would be all tell, better to show what happened. But then I thought, better still, leave the chapter hanging, and jump forward in time in the next chapter and, using a different character's POV, show the characters doing things which "tell" the reader what I had been going to tell them in the summary.
I do find myself saying show don't tell in places where the scene will be hard to write. I think it's generally easier to tell what happened in a difficult scene than to show it happening. So as a writer I want to try and stretch myself by writing the scene and showing whenever possible.
I am not arguing against your post, just pointing out that telling can be a cop out, and boring as hell too, for the beginner writer, like me anyway.
Thanks Graham - I think it depends on the situation - you should be able to have the flexibility to do what you want. It's best to keep the story moving in any form, but there's nothing wrong with a character reflecting or beginning a chapter in 'tell' mode, especially the beginning of a book. There's too often an outright dismissal on behalf of publishers/agents who see it and use that as an excuse. To me it's just an excuse and nothing more.ReplyDelete
Look at films as an example of the current mindset. It must begin with a bang, big action sequence at the beginning etc. Not long ago, it was set up, focus on stories, characters etc - I think its simply insecurity, that if they don't grab the viewer or reader immediately, they will lose them. There's no faith anymore. No respect for the 'consumer.'
After all, in real life, we tell stories to one another. People are still interested. You don't have to take them to the physical location or show them a video in order to engage them - they listen. It assumes that people are stupid/and or get bored. I think Show is best for action etc and should be used where possible, but it isn't always possible and the author should feel that they have the freedom to do what's best for their book, and not to please some number crunching suit, who think they know better.
You're probably right about telling being an excuse for the slushpile reader to get rid of another manuscript.ReplyDelete
In the manuscript I am writing at the moment I probably have way too much show, much of that in the form of dialogue. But there is a reason for all the dialogue, I am attempting to show how the characters never say what they are thinking. But telling can be an effective way of summarising dialogue.
And I agree, what works works.
You would like the start of Oblivion when the main character spends five minutes telling us how the earth came to be what it is.
Dialouge is good - I like dialouge - it's an effective to reveal character. As for Oblivion, that's probably not a good way to start a film and not quite the type of telling that's effective in film - I just dont think you have to start with a car chase or something - I think Star Wars made such an impact all those years ago that studios have been emulating it ever since, often to effect but to the exclusion of other possibilities.Delete
If you could hear this as I type it. It would come to you as the sound of applause. I remember when many in the literary "establishment" hated and criticized everything Stephen King did (some still do). Obviously, the reading public did not agree with them. EVERY book the man has written became a best seller and even his short stories are made into movies.ReplyDelete
I can capsulize this in a quick minute. I HATE elitists! They only really feel superior when they are trying to belittle others. There are a ton of them. These days, every Tom, Dick and Harry is a frigging critic and expert. It doesn't matter if they've never published a single thing, besides a blog post. Everybody is an expert, but why don't they know that the most important thing, or maybe the ONLY important thing is to be able to engage the reader by writing a good story. Who cares if they start a sentence with a conjunction, confuse lie with lay, or break a million other so called rules? My granny was probably a functional illiterate, but when she started telling one of her stories, nobody said a word. They didn't say a word, because they didn't want to miss anything.
I remember taking some offense to a few of the comments you got when you were doing the Feral Street series. If people don't like something, that's fine and they should stop reading, but instead, they tried to TELL you how to write it. I hated that.
So much for "capsulizing!" Sorry about the rant...
Cheers Pat! That's a great comment. I hate rules and as you point out, there are many all too willing to flaunt them when they've done so little themselves.Delete
I also like Stephen King and yes I remember the reviewers going to town on him - snobbery is what it is. I believe a certain type of person is attracted to the publishing world and they're more than often conservative. God knows how Stephen King ever made it. Actually he almost didn't, only thanks to his persistent (and that of his wife - famously rescuing Carrie from the bin)..
I don't remember those comments on Feral St. You've got a good memory! Maybe I'll go back and defend myself more vigorously! ha ha
hey Anthony I found your card today at mimosa rocks while exploring with my children on the most splendid of winter days. What a beautiful place hey? When were you there? I hope you derived some inspiration from this place. Like I told my kids its not only sacred for the blackfellas but for the whitefellas too. RhylDelete
Hi Rhyl - that's so interesting as I've never been there! Where did you find it? Perhaps someone who bought my book Bottomless River from last year left it there. otherwise, I'm stumped! Sounds nice though.Delete