Dangerous advice: Show don’t tell

I don’t much care for the “Show, don’t tell,” advice, though every now and then I feel compelled to note that a particular scene in a specific book would be a lot better with more showing and less telling. Still, as a rule, I’m not a fan of this phrase. Therefore, this blog post at Anne R Allen’s blog caught my eye: Why “Show Don’t Tell” Can be Dangerous Advice for New Writers.

I know why I don’t like “show, don’t tell.” I dislike this advice because

–It makes it sound like telling is bad.

–It prevents new authors from figuring out when and how to tell effectively.

–It makes new authors self-conscious about the wrong things.

–It ignores books that are heavily into telling, or treats those books as inferior.

***

Let’s look at one of those books.

A Winter’s Tale, by Helprin

And sometime not too deep in winter, each year, the Lake of the Coheeries would surprise everyone by freezing over during the night. In the second week of December at the latest, the inhabitants of Lake of the Coheeries Town sat by their fires after dinner and stared into the darkness around their rafters as Canadian winds rode in hordes and attacked their settlement from the north. These winds had been born and raised in the arctic, and had learned their manners on the way down, in Montreal—or so it was said, since the people of Lake of the Coheeries hadn’t much respect for the manners or mores of Montreal. The winds ripped off tiles, broke branches, and toppled unwired chimneys. When they came up, everyone knew that winter had begun, and that a long time would pass before the spring made the lake light yellow with melting streams that fled from newly breathing fields. …

The lake had frozen in one night, which meant that a harsh winter was due. Just how difficult it would get could be forecast by the smoothness of the ice. The finer it was, the harder would be the succeeding months, although—in the days before it snowed—iceboating would be unlike anything on earth.

It lay there almost laughing at its own perfection. There was not a ripple, streak, or bubble to be seen. The terrible wind and the incessant castellations of foam had been banished and leveled by the fast freeze of heavy blue water. Not a flake of snow skidded across the endless glass, which was as perfect as an astronomer’s mirror.

“The monsters must be sealed in tight,” Mrs. Gamely said. Then she grew silent in contemplation of the winter to come. The ice was airless, smooth, and dark. For two weeks the sun rose and set on Lake of the Coheeries Town, low and burnished, spinning out a mane of golden brass threads. A steady and gentle breeze moved from west to east on the lake, sweeping the flawless black ice clean in a continuous procession of chattering icicles and twigs that fled from wind and sun like ranks of opera singers who run from their scenes gaily and full of energy in a stage direction stolen from streams, surf, and the storms which fleece autumnal forests.

Even though the air temperature never went above ten degrees, the weather was mild because the wind was light and the sky cloudless. With their wells freezing up and their world nearly still, the inhabitants of the town took to the ice in a barrage of Dutch pursuits that saw the sun rise and set, and gave the village the busy and peculiar appearance of a Flemish winter scene. Perhaps they had inherited it; perhaps the historical memory deep within them, like the intense colors with which the landscape was painted, was renewable. A Dutch village arose along the lake. Iceboats raced from west to east and tacked back again, their voluminous sails like a hundred flowers gliding noiselessly across the ice. Up close, there was only a slight sound as gleaming steel runners made their magical cut. A little way in the distance, they sounded like a barely audible steam engine. Miniature villages sprang up on the lake, comprised of fishing booths ranged in circles, with flapping doors and curling pigtails of smoke from stovepipe chimneys. Firelight from these shelters reflected across the ice at night in orange and yellow lines that each came to a daggerlike point. Boys and girls disappeared together, on skates, pulled into the limitless distance by a ballooning sail attached to their thighs and shoulders. When they had traveled so far on the empty mirror that they could see no shore, they folded the sail, put it on the ice, and lay on its tame billows to fondle and kiss, keeping a sharp eye on the horizon for the faraway bloom of an iceboat sail, lest they be discovered and admired to death by the younger children who sailed boats into the empty sections just to see such things.

Blazing fires on shore ringed inward bays and harbors like necklaces. At each one, there was steaming chocolate, or rum and cider, and venison roasting on a spit. Skating on the lake in darkness, firing a pistol to keep in touch with a friend, was like traveling in space, for there were painfully bright stars above and all the way down to a horizon that rested on the lake like a bell jar. The stars were reflected perfectly, though dimly, in the ice, frozen until they could not sparkle. Long before, someone had had the idea of laying down wide runners, setting the light-as-a-white-weddingcake village bandstand on them, and hitching up a half-dozen plough horses with ice shoes to tow the whole thing around at night. With lights shining from the shell, an entire enchanted village skated behind it as the Coheeries orchestra played a lovely, lucid, magical piece such as “Rhythm of Winter,” by A. P. Clarissa.

When the farmers all along the undulating lakeshore saw a chain of tiny orange flames, and the shining white castle moving dreamlike through the dark (like a dancer making quick steps under concealing skirts), they strapped on their skates and pogoed through their fields to leap onto the ice and race to the magic that glided across the horizon. As they approached, they were astonished by the music, and by the ghostly legions of men, women, and children skating in the darkness behind the bandshell. They looked like the unlit tail of a comet. Young girls twirled and pirouetted to the music: others were content just to follow.

***

This is a beautiful story with many dreamlike scenes, especially winter scenes. I’ve read it maybe half a dozen times. I think the first time, I was too young. There was a lot I didn’t understand and I wasn’t sure I liked it, but I knew I loved the language of the story. Later, I read it slowly and I think I understood it better. I know I liked it better. I also still loved the language of the story, which is, as you see, heavy on telling, as beautiful description always is, and perhaps that’s why I always disregarded “show, don’t tell” advice myself, because I’ve always loved beautiful description.

What “telling” is for:

–Description that goes on more than a line or so.

–Establishing tone.

–Getting through unimportant transitions as briskly as possible.

–Getting through anything else unimportant as briskly as possible.

What avoiding telling necessarily causes:

–Limits description.

–Makes it hard to create a tone at all.

–SLOWS DOWN THE STORY A LOT, and I mean A LOT, and this is a problem even for an author who doesn’t care much about description.

So, what does this post at Anne R Allen’s blog say

A) Too Much “Show Don’t Tell” Slows the Pace.

Some newbie writers confuse descriptions of violence with conflict. If you describe every blow and scream of pain in a fight scene, your story is not moving forward. The story stops until we know how the characters react to what’s going on and how the fight alters the trajectory of the plot.

B) “Camera’s Eye” Showing Skimps on Information

But when a novelist tells us a character clenches his fist, he is not letting us in on much. … You’re not a camera. You’re a novelist. And it’s your job to give us as much information as possible to tell your story.

C) “Show Don’t Tell” Can Distance the Reader from the Character.

An author’s job is to create a connection between the reader and the character. Readers want to get inside the character’s head. But when we meet that guy with the clenched fist, we are just looking at him from the outside. We’re shut out of the story.

D) Withholding Information Annoys the Reader.

Let us know where we are, who the protagonist is and what he wants, or you’ve lost your reader before chapter two. If you have to tell rather than show to keep the reader from leaving, go ahead and do it. Seriously. It’s okay.

E) It’s Hard to Say Anything Original about Body Language.

How many times have you hit the thesaurus looking for a new way to say your character is afraid or angry or elated?

F) Too Much “Showing” Can be a Sign of Over-Workshopping

 I know writers who have workshopped the same novel for decades in everything from college classes to writers’ conferences to online critique groups. They often try to follow the advice of every person who gives feedback. What they’re doing is giving away creative control of their own book. They are letting their book be written by committee. They’re also following a recipe for bland, boring writing. Don’t do it. 

These are all good points. But surely that last is pure insecurity. This is where the only advice that matters is QUIT ASKING FOR ADVICE. Oh, maybe, PUT THAT AWAY FOR A YEAR and also QUIT ASKING FOR ADVICE. I really feel someone who does this ought to benefit a lot by putting the over-workshopped thing in a drawer and writing something else. When they have their new project finished, they should perhaps ask ONE beta reader for a critique, and then revise ONE time and then make a decision on that basis about whether to send it out into the world.

Having said that, I overworked a book once, and had a difficult time rebuilding it. That was NO FOREIGN SKY, and it was a lesson to me. The lesson was: Don’t keep rewriting according to different people’s advice. Just don’t. Minor revision is one thing; that’s fine. But big rewrites, do it according to your own vision or don’t do it at all. I may not stick to that rule forever, who knows, but that’s my rule for now.

Meanwhile!

I do like the linked post, and I hadn’t thought specifically of how “show don’t tell” can be translated as “don’t put us in the character’s head,” but wow, it sure could be taken that way. Speaking as someone who benefits from being asked, “Can you bring us more into the character’s head?”, I now wonder if this is one reason I dislike “show don’t tell” advice so much — because “show physical movements, avoid revealing the emotional context” is exactly the wrong advice for me. It might be okay for someone else. It might help a different author tone down the angst. Though my impression is, authors who write characters who wallow in angst do it on purpose, so maybe not.

Anyway, bottom line, everybody needs to show effectively and also tell effectively, whatever that means for them; and (as always) proscriptive advice is bad advice.

Also, maybe I should re-read A Winter’s Tale. Maybe I’ll wait till July, when I long for winter. Or for February, when I want to enjoy the winter more.

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13 thoughts on “Dangerous advice: Show don’t tell”

  1. I think there is something to the advice show don’t tell, and as usual Pat Wrede has some good thoughts on it. She says: “telling” is providing an opinion of a character, action, place, etc. without giving the reader any evidence that they should believe said opinion; “showing” is providing a reader with evidence on which to form an opinion of their own.”

    My own effort at an example: if you write ‘John was a good and loyal friend’, the reader may skim or forget it. If you show John driving three hours through a blizzard so he can bring Mary supplies, now the reader will believe he’s a good friend. On the other hand, the author can summarise the drive through the blizzard. Putting in more description of the icy roads doesn’t make it more effective.

    I really like Wrede’s version because it’s a guide to when to show versus tell. The more important it is that the reader understand and believe something (major character traits, nature of plot-critical magic), the more you need to show it. And conversely, if something isn’t very important (the exact description of the scenery), there’s no need to spend Patreon it.

    Wrede’s other point is that telling goes very wrong when the author tries to dictate an opinion the reader disagrees with. If the author keeps saying that John is a good friend but John keeps undermining and denigrating Mary, the reader will throw the book across the room.

    https://pcwrede.com/pcw-wp/more-show-and-tell-ranting-plus-characterization-stuff/

  2. Not sure how “spend pages on it” got autocorrected to Patreon. Technology is wonderful, sometimes.

  3. Very true, Rowan, and a good way of looking at it.

    I think by far the most common version of the author-says problem is the-author-SAYS-she’s-smart thing. Any number of protagonists where the author keeps saying they are intelligent while they keep acting as dumb as a box of rocks.

    Also very true about autocorrect…

  4. The-author-SAYS-she’s-smart. Dear God, yes. 100% agree. And, relatedly, author-says-she’s-competent. There are a worrying number of published authors who have no idea what smart or competent really mean.

  5. For some of those authors I think they may have an idea of ‘competent’ based on … oh, Hollywood, or something, not reality. It’s gotten worse in the last generation of writers, I think. Or maybe it’s just what I’ve been noticing and putting back down.

    And there’s the unreliable narrator problem where you’re supposed to notice that John isn’t that supportive of Mary. The challenge is writing so most of the readers pick up on that wrongness and interpret it as the writer wants. (In my experience there’re always some who don’t notice some things.)

  6. @Rowan – yes. Unfortunately. An example from a very famous series: I simply could NOT believe that Lord Voldemort was supposed to be intelligent. He kept getting totalled by a child because he kept making utterly basic mistakes!!! It’s like Rowling got something good going with the charming, conniving, deadly, teenage Tom Riddle… and then completely forgot about all that with the completely-flat adult version. (Although I have read truly fantastic fanfics where Lord Voldemort has actually *been* intelligent rather than the author just *saying* he is. The one-chapter fic “insurgere” by Silver Pard, for example… he outwits Dumbledore, thoroughly outmaneuvers everyone else, becomes massively powerful and basically has influence over the entire society – all through the deliberate choice, at the age of eleven, to be sorted into Hufflepuff. Or the too-dark-for-me “Unbroken Universe” by Robin4, which YES is a Look At Me I’m So Evil one but Voldemort’s intelligent and powerful and very almost wins despite his opponents also being intelligent and powerful. Which is 3/4 of the reason it’s too dark for me. He’s a sadist and it’s done far too well.)

    If you insist your character’s intelligent and the reader thinks “… pull the other one, the character’s a blinking IDIOT”, you’ve failed.

  7. Yes, if you have all the secondary characters swooning over how intelligent your protagonist is, and your readers are rolling their eyes, that is definitely an epic failure. Elaine, beats me if that’s more common than it used to be, but it’s a much faster DNF for me than it used to be. Younger readers are perhaps more likely to tentatively go along with author statements that are clearly contradicted by the thoughts and actions of the character, and then that tolerance of the disconnect wears off over time? Not sure about that, but I can see this being a thing that comes more to the foreground with experience.

  8. Heather, you may enjoy a Potter fanfic my Teen has recommended highly to me (haven’t gotten around to it yet) anyway – well written, and good friendship and boys written as plausible boys: How Fred and George Accidentally Befriended a Wannabe Dark Lord, on Ao3 by map_of_mysteries. They get the horcrux diary. Teen age Tom is vastly unimpressed by what he learns of Voldemort’s career. ” (how had his creator gotten it into his head that using an alter ego they had invented at twelve was a suitably menacing title for a Dark Lord? And for that matter, a Dark Lord, really? The plan had been to take over the world silently from the shadows. With class). “

    Rachel, yes, it being much more of a DNF for me is probably due to experience, and the chances to see and note how competent people and organizations tend to work.

    For telling vs showing, I think it falls under needing to show more – worldbuilding where it looks like x but is actually y. I can remember a few examples where I was going along happily reading in a medievaloid (or whatever) fantasy setting, and (actual example from 30+ years ago) suddenly the main character pulled out a flashlight. The book hit my wall shortly after. Later found out that was a feature, not a mistake and several people who usually had good taste recommended the book. It was supposed to be mixed setting, sort of like Amber, IIRC. Not enough clues for me were dropped before the flashlight came out . And the writing probably wasn’t quite good enough – I recall being in nitpick mode anyway, and I wasn’t prone to that back then. I don’t think.

  9. Elaine Thompson

    Elaine T’s Teen here: the theoretically smart is getting so common it’s practically flooding the market these days, sometimes. IF the writers never learned how to use their brains, but were told ‘smart means be praised’ by their school experiences, they think that people swooning over so-and-so’s brains, or good grades, or whatever, means so and so is smart. Or that if they establish in a an academic setting that so-and-so has good grades; they think that’s enough to convey therefore he must be smart. The villainous lead in Death Note, (which I haven’t actually looked at because it’s not my style) is one of these, if I understand correctly. He’s got good grades, he’s a star student, and he’s an uncatchable serial killer with a god complex. The only reason he seems to be uncatchable is the supernatural method of killing in his hands, and that his public image is too good to suspect. And the number of copycats claiming his name- I remember hearing there were some. Keep in mind that this is secondhand, and fuzzy from memory.
    It was already happening though- Sad truth about the Voldemort example is that he keeps making the same basic mistakes around this one boy due to his own pride, but he’s still smarter than most of his competition, simply because they have even less brain than he does. This is based on my own observations from reading those books.
    I personally suspect all wizards have got brain damage from heavy metal poisoning. It would explain so much.
    Contrast Voldemort to an example from another generation of writers:
    Almost every so-called smart person in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, up to the end of the Mage Storms at which point I threw it at the wall in disgust. They never demonstrated their brains once they actually narrated part of the book, which undermined the villains narrative weight tremendously.
    Contrasting to one or two of my personal favorite intelligent characters: Artemis Fowl who never makes me question his success or how prepared he is for his ventures, but is slow to respond to unforeseen threats, and unwilling to take risks when we open the story. He calculated the potential danger to the percentage before we ever met him, and set a perfect trap.
    In his second book, he’s on the offensive, rather than baiting his enemies into the defensive, and proves that while he can be stymied, he’s just as formidable there. Also, that he’s learning how to improvise with the tools at hand. His ability to be convincing and terrifying helps. A lot. One thirteen year old, one bodyguard, and two fairies successfully rescued his father from the mafia.
    The scene was a beached submarine, in radioactive water, during a polar night. There were two hundred snipers waiting for Artemis to show himself.
    He called the Russian manning the operation to negotiate, proved that he could see the mobsters better than they could see him, and then ordered his own father shot. It was chilling. The mobster threw his father overboard, and panicked about having to return to the boss without the money. Artemis’ calm answer spooked the mobster “The last thing I want is for my father to return and threaten everything I have built over the last two years. So he had to die. I needed to see it for myself, just to be sure. However you can still make some money tonight. You get the money, I get safe passage home. Look across the bay. Do you see the flare at the tip of the fjord? There is a briefcase tied to that flare, containing the money. The flare burns out in half an hour. I’d get there before then, if I were you, or the case could take years to find.”
    While he said this, and sent the gunmen scrambling for the flare, his invisible accomplice was retrieving his father from the radioactive, arctic water and healing him with fairy magic. Supernatural help made it possible, but it was his brain that made it work. And all time previously spent with him left me utterly believing that he could and would come up with that plan. The only variable was if his father would be thrown overboard once Artemis had him shot.

  10. I’ve never read the Artemis Fowl books. Now I kind of want to.

    “Medievaloid” is a great term and I hope I remember to use it in the future.

  11. The first five or so Artemis Fowl books are pretty good. The author should have stopped there. For someone who started as a juvenile Bond villain, especially, the protagonist improves tremendously. Although he’s still very dangerous. They’re juveniles or early YA or something, so fast reads.

  12. @ Elaine T’s Teen: ….. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! Oh goodness, the entire society having brain damage from heavy metal poisoning would explain SO MUCH. Now I kind of want to read a fanfic of that.

    I did try Artemis Fowl several years ago but – from vaguest memory – was put off by the fairies. However, your description of the Brilliantly Scheming Main Character has kind of made me want to try it again. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood. First five or so, Elaine says… all right. Next time I’m at the library, I’ll see whether #1 is in.

    @ Elaine: Thanks for the fanfic rec, off to read!

  13. I loved Artemis Fowl, as a kid and young adult (I’ve found I can’t re-read them anymore, which is sad). Elaine’s Teen captures Artemis really well— he’s a planner and a plotter, and he’s got realistic weaknesses to go with that (which he then plans for! Doh. NOT an example of he-says-he’s-smart). Also, Eoin Colfer’s a great writer.

    I made the mistake of watching the movie after it came out, and PSA: don’t watch it. It destroys all the characters and totally messes up the plot.

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