The three most often repeated “rules of writing,” recited by rote and left uninvestigated and unchallenged in virtually every writing workshop and English class are capable of doing terrible damage to good writing. The Terrible Three are:
Show, don’t tell.
Nonsense. Good writing involves “showing”–that is, dramatizing–as well as “telling”–employing exposition. An avoidance of “telling” may convolute clear motivation (exemplified by “showing”). It compromises setting. It obfuscates situation.
We do not speak of “story-showing”; we speak of “storytelling.” Many great works of literature are largely expositional, including Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and–try this one–Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” In the latter’s “Overture,” Proust roams, in exposition, through the inner landscape of the child Marcel’s need for his mother’s nightly bedtime kiss. Now he can move on to exemplify–“show”–the drama of his foiled attempts. Thomas Bernhard’s masterpiece, “Concrete,” is all gasping exposition until the end opens into eerie dramatization.
The effect of “scenes”–showing–may be created through refined “telling,” as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which is in major part exposition, with scant dialogue often used as dramatic punctuation: “The world is round, like an orange.”
A good way to add life to exposition is to capture a dramatic moment, to hear someone speak, see someone move, act–yes, show–since time is the accumulation of moments.
It is hammered into people (by other people – not by any writing authority) that you must show not tell. It’s rarely questioned, but it should be. This kind of stuff is often used to help start-out writers, taught in basic writing workshops across the land. It certainly has a place to be considered, but they probably forget to un-teach it.
Of course, you need to know when you’re doing it, and to apply it in a controlled manner. I’m reading the Man Booker winner, Wolf Hall, at the minute, and I’m being told rather than shown an awful lot. And it’s great, it’s rich, it’s multi-dimensional, it’s stylish – done under a well-controlled point-of-view character, it’s a powerful way to tell a story. And yes, I do it myself (from a character’s POV; I’ve not done the omnipresent exposition all that much).
Also, I think we each have a different meaning of “show don’t tell”. Dumping huge amounts of information, which characters obviously know but is a cheap way of delivering information about the plot, is famously not cool. There are many other examples of what’s not cool, and you should know the rules before you break them.
I don’t like giving writing advice – it’s a very awkward thing to do – but I do like telling people that they’re freer than they think they are when it comes to constructing fictional prose. Read the rest of the article here for the other myths of “write about what you know” and “always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to”.
What do you think? Is it something you worry about in your own writing? Are you even conscious of it?