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.

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.

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

On Knowledge

To me, the central problem with the novel as it still stands is that it’s a bit like London, it’s still a Victorian construct, and that problem is to do with knowledge. It’s to do with the prior knowledge that the novel has: that you enter this world in which things are known by somebody, and yet it’s supposed to look real, so where is this knowledge coming from? And that is almost, it seems to me, again, a Victorian, quasi-religious idea: that there is some omniscience somewhere, that there is an omniscient narrator-God, that somebody knows what’s going on, and that there’s some meaningful narrative to all of this. So, I thought, I’ve got to write a novel where there’s no prior knowledge at all. And, having decided that, the form evolved itself, because once you write with that discipline — once you start writing, thinking [that] nothing can be known in this text by the narrator — everything has to be read from the surface. It is incredible how many sentences you can’t write.

Rachel Cusk
in interview with Caille Millner

Writing Seeing: Open City (2)

Continued from the previous post.

“Brussels is old,” Julius says as he arrives in the city and observes what he calls “a peculiar European oldness, which is manifested in stone.” During the Second World War, he recalls, Brussels was declared an open city, essentially surrendering to German invasion in order to preserve its infrastructure and architecture, and, as a result, it avoided becoming “another Dresden” so as to remain “a vision of the medieval and baroque periods, a vista interrupted only by the architectural monstrosities erected all over town by Leopold II.” Unlike the metropolitan layering of Manhattan, absent the palimpsest of newness erasing and writing over the old, Brussels’ comparative antiquity bespeaks a preservationist relationship to the past which captivates Julius and seems initially to satisfy his urge to find his place, to locate himself, within the totality of the network of relations he sees extending far throughout time. Continue reading

Writing Seeing: Open City (1)

What sense can one expect readers to make of the opening words of Open City? What speaker can hope to convey any meaning with words that flow out from a coordinating conjunction? “And so,” the speaker begins, “when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.” Since nothing precedes that “And so,” the coordinating conjunction elides the cause of the speaker’s evening walks. But flip back a few pages to his aphoristic epigraph and consider how it issues a statement to which his walks may be a response. “Death,” it declares, “is a perfection of the eye.” Insofar as those words form the first full sentence of Open City, the subsequent “And so” coordinates the notion contained therein with the evening walks that the speaker discusses. “Death is a perfection of the eye,” and so, perhaps in some perverse courtship of death or otherwise in pursuit of perfection, the speaker sets out into the city each night and then, when his walks come to an end, he notices that they have afforded him an alteration of his perspective on his world. Having “fallen into the habit of watching bird migrations from my apartment,” he says,

I wonder now if [that habit and the evening walks] are connected. … I used to look out of the window like someone taking auspices, hoping to see the miracle of natural immigration. Each time I caught sight of geese swooping in formation across the sky, I wondered how our life below might look from their perspective, and imagined that, were they ever to indulge in such speculation, the high-rises might seem to them like firs massed in a grove.

The speaker’s name is Julius. He is a young Nigerian of German-Nigerian parentage who now works as an intern at a hospital in Manhattan. Given his first-person detailing of events, his perception of his surroundings is far more circumscribed than that of the knower of The Known World or the seer of Blood Meridian, and so, as he crosses and recrosses the city, he comes to hunger for a mode of perception that will make him more like them. He wants to develop a perfection of the eye that will, in a sense, allow him to obtain an omniscient view of the life he leads. Continue reading