Don’t “Show, Don’t Tell”

Earlier this week, on Twitter, I saw an interesting “demolition” of the conventional wisdom that informs no shortage of creative writing classes: “show, don’t tell.” And, being glad to see the conventional wisdom demolished, I thought I’d share the advice I prefer to give my students…

“Show, don’t tell” is, like most creative writing “rules,” bullshit — not to mention a vestige of Cold War-era propaganda and orthodoxies. But, crucially, rejecting it doesn’t mean you’ve got a license to do the opposite and just “tell.” These are the binary extremes of a whole array of choices you’ve got in front of you, and it’s your job, privilege, and responsibility to make your choices freely, knowing what you intend to achieve with them and knowing also what alternatives you’re forfeiting.

So, yes, you can absolutely show instead of telling: you can observe the materiality of an environment, construct characters with intelligible psychologies, set scenes, orchestrate action, depict events cinematically, etc., and thereby immerse your reader in a particular moment. Or you can tell instead of showing: summarise events, enumerate thoughts and feelings, explain motives and consequences, and generally move through time — or back and forth through time — at a faster clip than if you show the nitty-gritty of all this stuff. When you show, you risk losing pace, momentum, and to some extent the significance of details, in cases where significance might come from a freezing of time, or a telescoping of chronology, to dwell on them in-depth or to observe their ripple effects from afar. When you tell, which is to say summarise and/or explicate, you risk losing the immersive capabilities of full-scale depiction, and therefore some of the emotion that readers tend to invest in characters whose stories they experience up-close, in something approaching real time.

(Sidenote: “telling” can also be “showing”, because at least when a first-person narrator tells a story, you are showing them in the act of telling, which overlays a new temporality on the events they’re telling the reader about. And “showing” can also involve “telling”, because when you’ve got an externalised, third-person depiction of a scene in which a character tells a story, you can show others’ reactions both to the telling in the moment and the tale itself. Othello does this really well.)

Anyway, ultimately, it isn’t a binary choice, is it? Page by page, line by line, moment by moment, you’re going to make that choice over and over again, and every time you make it you’re going to fall somewhere on the spectrum between them. The artistry isn’t necessarily in showing or telling, but in oscillating between them — in the degree to which you do it, and the frequency with which you do it, and your strategies for modulating the oscillation, gently fading with a nice segue or giving your reader whiplash. And the artistry is also there in having a sense of the effects you can generate by choosing one instead of the other, as well as a sense of the effects you’re not generating — but could — if you went down a different route. So, in rejecting the binary choice, don’t reject it at the outset. You may well want to “show, not tell” at some stage, or “tell, not show.” It’s a choice to make continuously in every moment of the process, depending on what’s in front of you at any given instant.

Heading Into Literature

Following on from his earlier Twitter thread about “readability”, Sam Byers has a sharp take on what’s really happening beneath the surface of cultural discussion about the death of the novel in light of the rise of streaming entertainment. Netflix says it’s competing with books for the attention of readers/viewers. Byers says this:

Of course Netflix might say they’re competing with books. That doesn’t mean they are. And when we talk about them as this all conquering force we are in some ways doing their work for them. But there is a deeper problem, and that is the way we talk about literature and the way that conversation has become increasingly dominated by a single word: story. … If we regard both television and literature as mere delivery mechanisms for an entertainment drug called “story”, then it seems to me that, yes, TV is the more efficient delivery mechanism. However, both forms are actually more than that, and the ways that they are more than that are fundamentally different from each other. Ironically, I think both forms suffer when we reduce their strengths to a nebulous concept of story.

Literature is not actually just about story. Literature both arises from, and is concerned with, language. More significantly, literature is a medium almost unparalleled in its ability to explore a key aspect of our lives: our interiority, our consciousness. TV and film, meanwhile, are able to bring a level of visual and auditory experience that literature obviously can’t match. They can tap right into our senses. In the race to the bottom to regard all broadly narrative art forms as mere story mechanisms, we’ve lost sight of both those things. We’re fixated on “what happens”. We expect a certain rhythm of being “gripped”. We want everything to be “addictive”, “can’t put it down etc”. The novel is so much more than this, and in my view the future of the form lies not in the ways it might mimic the structures and narratives of TV series, but in the courage of writers to use language to access places TV can’t reach. …

I think a real timidity has developed around literature that is not televisual. And I think writers have compounded this by often seeming very uncomfortable talking about literature in “pretentious” intellectual and creative terms. This is a great time, I think, to head into literature, to remind ourselves what language and the written world can do, and to think about “stories” that just wouldn’t make it onto TV.

Whiteness

This week, Splice is running a two-part essay by me on the very niche subject of white space in prose fiction, with a focus on the uses of white space in two recent “novels”. Here’s how it starts:

What are the uses of white space in prose? A paragraph break prompts a renewal of focus; it asserts, in advance, the significance of some element of a scene or sequence. A section break swallows time, disrupting chronology in ways that sometimes take a leap to another moment and sometimes pause the unfolding action, withdrawing from the flow of things. Chapter breaks combine these effects while also opening up a refuge, a place to rest, offering readers an opportunity to catch their breath and take stock of events before proceeding.

But what about a space that both shatter a tract of prose and encompass its shards? What about those spaces that break a text into fragments and then encase each one in its own carapace of silence? The text appears as a series of disjointed, discrete segments of prose, but the whiteness that runs through it is also a force for its integrity. Its lacunae devour the words that would forge clear connections between its segments — by explication, by causality — and for that reason they become, collectively, the locus of the unity of the prose, the silence from which readers might extract connective threads.

Part one looks at white space in Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak.

Part two looks at white space in Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9– Fog.

What Do We Mean By “Readable”?

Good times for meta-criticism. Following on from Daniel Green’s “cold takes” on Darker With the Lights On and Milkman, here’s a perceptive Twitter thread from Sam Byers in response to someone else’s earlier remarks on the “unreadability” of Finnegans Wake. First, the unattributed spur:

[The judgment of “unreadability”] invokes that style of “reading” which, encountering no obstacle, is hardly reading in the active sense at all, resembling rather, in Beckett’s dismissive words, the “rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense”.

Now, Byers:

Very struck by this, which feels relevant to current literary or “books” discussion. What do we mean by “readable”? Do we simply mean “encountering no obstacle”? Contrast this with “reading as interpretation or as provoking visions” which to me at least seems way more exciting. Also struck by “different kinds of attention”. It makes me feel that in our current near-obsession with “attention”, we misunderstand it, and then in turn misunderstand the things that demand it. If we see attention as a fixed and uniform skill or phenomenon, we naturally expect all art to appeal to that fixed attention in the same way, which is why we’ve ended up assessing novels against metrics of pace and accessibility more pertinent to TV than to literature. It makes me think we’re in a strange kind of mess where we demand that something captures and holds our attention, but don’t consider the benefits of applying varying types of attention to objects that seem not to ask for it, or which actively work to repel it.

Voices or Ventriloquism?

With the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist making space for Alex Pheby’s Lucia, Will Eaves’ Murmur, and Anthony Joseph’s Kitch, it’s clear that there’s a trend for “bio-fiction” — fictionalised biographies of real historical figures — which raises a number of questions about the intersection between aesthetics and ethics. There’s a fascinating discussion of these issues on the latest RofC podcast and a welcome defence of more experimental strategies from the powers that be at Galley Beggar Press.

From Criteria to Credo

In a new article at American Prospect, Benjamin Markovits has suggested that we can clearly articulate “What makes fiction good.” Daniel Green, upon reading the article, complained that Markovits made “not one mention… of the writer’s use of language. It’s all about various gradations of story. If a work of fiction isn’t first of all its style, what the writer can do with words, it’s literally nothing but a plot.” Finally, in response, Emmett Stinson argued against using language alone as the sole criterion for literary merit:

[T]here are great writers (even within a literary tradition that prizes style over plot) who are bad or inconsistent stylists. … Style is not an “element” [of literature]. Visual narratives, spoken narratives, and written narratives are not the same. There are great writers who are bad or inconsistent stylists… especially in genres outside the literary. … Writing can do many things beyond rhetorical mastery (style). Fiction can be deeply affective or ideational without rhetorical complexity. Science fiction is arguably conceptually more complex than much lit fic, though stylistically less masterful. Many options for greatness… [and no need for] a subordination of all categories to “the writer’s language effects,” which strikes me as an attenuation of the possibilities for literature — just as a narrow focus on only narrative forms is.

Now, with Philip K. Dick being floated as an exemplar of a “great” writer who is also a terrible stylist, I’ve waded in with some rough thoughts of my own. Continue reading

After the End of Point-of-View

Last week I went to an event in London organised by the people behind the White Review: a panel discussion featuring Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Lara Feigel, on the topic of “Writing Motherhood.” I was struck by most of the things said by Cusk, in particular, and especially one remark she made and prefaced with “We haven’t spoken about literary form yet,” so she could open the doors to a discussion of form. What she wanted to say was this: “Point-of-view fiction has led the novel into a carpark full of overflowing skips, or some such un-aesthetic place.” That’s a slight paraphrase, but the key words were actually spoken by Cusk: “point-of-view,” “carpark,” “skips,” “un-aesthetic” or “not very aesthetic.” Continue reading