Show-Don't Tell, Must We?
I had always thought writers were individualists, and I'm sure most of them still are. This makes it all the harder for me to understand how a doctrine that is deeply prohibitive in nature could have assumed the status of a religious doctrine in a relatively short time.
It is widely believed Anton Chekhov ushered in the 'show-don't tell' era by saying "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."
History is loaded with myths and this is one of them. The truth is, in a letter to his brother, he wrote "In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that, on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball."
This is definitely is not telling, and it falls short of what is today called showing—It is a way of suggesting.
I had always thought writers were individualists, and I'm sure most of them still are. This makes it all the harder for me to understand how a doctrine that is deeply prohibitive in nature could have assumed the status of a religious doctrine in a relatively short time. How did this happen? At what point in history did exposition, which has been a staple of English-language fiction for seven-hundred years, become a disease that had to be cured through massive injections of dialog and character-and-scene descriptions?
Whether this is a step forward or a step backward is a matter of taste. As reader, I can't bear reading long stretches of dialog unless they're broken up in some way, and when I see a writer engaging in gratuitous descriptions of facial expressions, hair, clothes, buildings, rooms, streets, skies, shoes, and whatever else they could think of, I close the book.
One day, it occurred to me this over-description was the logical concomitant of television and the cinema crowding out books. I thought of it as the cinenamatization fiction. My naïve belief that I had invented the term 'cinematized fiction'was dashed on the rocks of reality when I searched for it in Merriam Webster and found it was defined there as adapting a novel for the cinema. Merriam Webster also provided an example of usage, And a generation of modern viewers, their inner lives cinematized from childhood on, knows it. — Richard Brody, The New Yorker, 16 May 2017.
their inner lives cinematized from childhood on That resonated.
My inner life has been cinematized since the first movie I saw as a child, but this didn't stand in the way of becoming a bibliophile, on the contrary, movies tell stories and this can lead to becoming addicted to fiction, on or off the screen.
If show-don't tell advocated cinematicized literature. I would be its most passionate supporter at CC, but, unfortunately, it advocates self-censorship.
My notion of cinematicized fiction is a story told using some of the techniques employed by Hollywood screenwriters, beginning the story with flashbacks or flashforwards and, if it supports the plot, repeating them at strategic moments. Hollywood screenwriters are talented writers; the have to be, studios want onlly the very best.
The drawback of the show-don't tell manta is that it is too primitive to be of any use because its obsession with showing blinds it to the existence of Hollywood techniques like flashbacks and inner monologues—it may work in genres where dwarfs fight giants, but in stories about real people, it distract readers by inundating them with trivia.
There are cases where neither telling nor showing is appropriate. Take, for example, a man learning through a phone call from a doctor friend of his that his wife died in surgery. I can think of plots where he would be overjoyed at hearing this and plots where the news would crush him, in neither case is exposition suitable. Having tears run down his face or having the narrator describe his look as 'crushed,' are both trite.
This leaves suggestion and interior monologue: If the intention is showing that the man loved his wife, the author could have him say to his friend, "I need some fresh air, call me back later." or let the reader know what he's thinking through Oh God, Why did you do this to me. If the intention is suggesting the death of his wife didn't affect him, the author could have the man ask, Is our tennis match still on? " or show what he's thinking through, Finally.
Lastly, there is the issue of narrative perspective. If a story is told by a first-person narrator-character, the line separating showing from telling is a very thin one because the main character shows and tells things about himself, and tells the reader things about other characters, as well. John Updike's Rabbit Run is a classic example of this.
In closing, I'll give some examples, the first two are by Web gurus, and the third by me.
Web guru illustrating telling. “I heard footsteps creeping behind me and it made the whole situation scarier.”
Web guru illustrating showing. “Crunching hit my ears from behind, accelerating the already rampant pounding of my heart.” — this is god-awful showing, but, then, Web gurus are god-awful writers.
Me Suggesting. "I heard footsteps behind me."
The last example has the advantage over telling, that readers aren't forced to accept the judgment of a character; they are now free agents on the alert, asking themselves what comes next. Suggestion has, in a certain way, made them adjuncts of the author. That is why I am now a 'suggest-don't tell-and -don't show either,' writer.
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