Showing vs Telling

One piece of advice which is given so often as to be a cliché at this stage, is ‘show don’t tell.’ It’s a slogan to be found in permanent residence on the whiteboards of creative writing teachers. The idea is a variation of ‘save the cat’ in film. Don’t say ‘this is the good guy,’ establish their character by way of demonstration, have them save a cat, or kick a dog (if they’re the bad guy), for example, to give the audience an emotional reaction one way or another. In most cinema, fine, I think that’s not such a bad technique, but in literature, I must say it is missing the point of the form.

Words are amazing- they have the ability to connect to the intellect. Most people forget about the power of words. Why do you read? If the film version of a novel came out, would you read the novel? Why do you write? If you could make a film, would you still write a novel? See, here’s the thing, I am concerned we are getting far too caught up in what words can simulate, rather than what they can, uniquely, do. If we take away the imagery of scenes, and characters, what are we left with? In a film, not much. But in a novel? One way I evaluate the quality of literature is by looking at the author’s skill in telling, and how well they use the medium of the written word to allow us insight at depths we would never be able to penetrate in the film version, were one to exist. And if you are going to use cinematic techniques in your fiction, at least use more interesting ones than ‘save the cat.’ There are far more nuanced ways of establishing character.

Think about it this way, you read a Harry Potter book, then you see the film. What is missing from the film that was in the book? Almost precisely nothing is different, save the length of the book’s plot versus the movie’s. I think you see what I’m getting at. So why is this piece of advice, ‘show don’t tell’ offered so ubiquitously? Well, it’s probably due to a misunderstanding of what telling actually is, and its all too frequent misuse. Telling is not info-dumping, which is something I would definitely advise against. Telling is allowing the narrator’s mind to enter, and make an impact. This is how voice can seep in between the lines, and give the writing a new dimension, and life. If something reads stale, it is almost certainly because of a lack of this very quality. It takes an incredible skill to do this well and rarely is it something the author can pull off, but when done right, the results can be, will be, spectacular. I implore those of you who write to draw from the pen your inner teller.


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