Six impossible things

Show and tell redux

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

-W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve had at least four questions from people in the last week or two about that hoary old piece of advice “show, don’t tell.” So even though I just did a post on it a few weeks ago, I decided to do another, somewhat different one.

Most of the questions boil down to “Where is the line between showing something and telling it? Does this or that count?”

To which I can only sigh, and shake my head, and respond, “IT DOES NOT MATTER.”

Neither readers nor editors keep a running mental checklist of how much an author “shows” versus how much she “tells.” Even if they did, their results wouldn’t be the same because a) people have different taste, b) there is no standard definition of “showing” vs. “telling” that everybody accepts, and c) the whole thing is something of a false dichotomy anyway, since on the most basic level everything in every story is being told to the reader by the author.

Most of all, though, whether something is “showing” or “telling” does not matter, because it is the wrong question. Labeling a sentence, paragraph, or scene “showing” does not make it an effective way of getting that information across to the reader in the context of the particular story the author is telling, any more than labeling it “telling” makes it ineffective.

Or to put it another way: the line between “showing” and “telling,” and the “best ratio of showing to telling,” are not matters of empirically defined, unchangeable fact like, oh, the speed of light or Planck’s constant; they are matters of art which (to the extent they can be pinned down at all) change from author to author and book to book. What matters is not whether an author can write some pre-defined Golden Ratio of showing to telling; what matters is whether whatever the author did works in the particular book she has written.

The answer to the question “How much telling (or showing) am I allowed to put in my book?” is like the answer to “How long should a person’s legs be?” That is, “Long enough to reach the ground” in the case of the legs, and “As much as it needs to make the book work” in the case of the writing.

Microwriting advice of the show-vs.-tell sort is, I think, meant to be of use at the revision stage, when one has a completed first draft that one knows has an as-yet-unidentified problem. One can then, in an attempt to identify the problem, go down the list of common, known problem areas asking “Is this that problem I can’t figure out?” Most of the time, the answer will be “no; I do it, but it’s not why Chapter 3 drags or why my readers lose interest in Chapter 7,” but occasionally one will smack one’s forehead and think “Doh! Why didn’t I see that?” And then one can fix it.

Unfortunately, what too many would-be writers do is turn this on its head. They go looking for problems that aren’t there. They don’t ask “Does this scene work? Does it feel right?” They ask “What’s wrong with this scene?”

Nitpicking what kinds of things constitute “showing” versus “telling” does not get one any closer to answering the real question, which is “Does this sentence (paragraph, scene, chapter) work in this book?” Of course, “Does this work here?” is a question that can only be answered one manuscript at a time; it is specific, not general, and no one can answer it without knowing where “here” is, i.e., without having read that specific manuscript. “Does this work?” is also, to a large extent, a subjective judgment; what works for one reader or editor will not work for another.

The things that work change from book to book and author to author…and from reader to reader. You have to develop your own feel for it, which is generally done by reading a ton of different books and noticing, on some level, what actually works or doesn’t work, and then by writing a ton of different things and noticing what works or doesn’t work.

Analytical writers may benefit from breaking down passages that work into pieces and figuring out why they work. I’m not quite sure how intuitive writers train their intuitions, but I’m pretty sure it involves the same amount of reading (and possibly even more).

I suspect this is why people keep asking me about where the line is and ratios and so on – because they want some objective (easy) way of measuring their writing skill. I’d be a lot more sympathetic if I didn’t think that a fair number of the folks who ask are looking for some way to game the system – if there were one specific, desirable ratio or a hard line between showing and telling, then they could twist this sentence a little bit, or use that technique, so that the sentence or paragraph falls on the “right” side of the line and their absolute ratio is correct, and this will magically make their manuscript saleable without actually changing it.

Sorry, folks; this won’t work. There is no system to game, and you can’t please everyone. Deal with it.

7 Comments
  1. Neither readers nor editors keep a running mental checklist of how much an author “shows” versus how much she “tells.”

    Unfortunately, I think a lot of critiquers do do this, along with counting -ly endings and so on. Whether that’s because they’ve had “the rules” ground into them so thoroughly that they think it’s the only way to go, or because they lack the confidence to have opinions of their own outside of some supposedly-objective framework, I can’t say (and it probably varies with the individual anyway). But it’s one of the things that makes finding good critique so very challenging.

    I’m not quite sure how intuitive writers train their intuitions, but I’m pretty sure it involves the same amount of reading (and possibly even more).

    Yep. It’s a matter of stuffing lots and lots of the sort of thing you like into your brain, until the back-brain gets accustomed to the patterns and assimilates that things you like are shaped that way (even if the front-brain remains sunnily oblivious to anything beyond “Ooh, that’s good!”).

  2. @ LizV – That’s why some of the best critiques you can get are from people who don’t claim to know how to critique. A reader who says, well, I kind of got bored there, or didn’t believe that she would do that, or didn’t get why this was happening, can be better than any number of parrots repeating rules at you.

  3. Compare it to Terry Pratchett’s Auditors of Reality who took the masterpiece paintings and analyzed them by sorting out and quantifying all the different coloured pigments.

  4. @ Cara – Yes, a reader who will do that is worth their weight in the precious metal of your choice! Still looking for a few more like that, myself….

  5. I knew you would say something like that. You have such a sensible outlook on “the rules.” Thanks!

  6. This is really, really nice to see, especially because a group of people at my college are trying to start a new literary magazine and I’ve just had to do some edits — and ran headfirst into the showing/telling thing! I was agonizing about it… “should I tell her not to show this? SHOULD she be showing this? Aaaargh!” It’s a volatile thing, I guess. Thanks so much.

    I was also wondering if there was a post on here anywhere about climaxes and the complications of tying them up? I seem to be struggling with that. Keep having characters head into a Big Adventure that goes wrong, which seems like the right thing to do, but then some other character just explains the whole thing, the other characters nod and look relieved, and then I have to find some way of ending it. If there’s a post about that and somebody could point me to it, that would be fab.

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