Before I disappear the book into a box in my storage unit (oh, the joys of living without a permanent base), I thought I better share perhaps the best discussion of show vs. tell that I’ve run across so far. It’s in Chapter Fifteen of Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.
If you, like me, still struggle with why everyone runs around telling you to show not tell, then this chapter is perfect. It’s actually called Dramatic vs. Narrative. I hope OSC won’t mind my sharing a few key quotes from the chapter:
“Storytellers constantly have to choose between showing, telling, and ignoring.”
“The important scenes, the ones that must be presented dramatically, are relatively rare – but they end up taking the bulk of the screen or stage time because ‘showing’ is so terribly time-consuming.”
“Which one of these is the right choice? Either one could be right; either could be wrong. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play…”
“Characters are made more real through scenes than through narrative.”
Basically, the point I took away from the chapter is that it’s perfectly acceptable to tell things rather than show them. As a matter of fact, it’s essential to tell some things rather than show everything.
And I like the point he makes about ignoring part of the story. You can’t tell every detail of every story. And you can’t do it from every angle. It’s too much.
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the Harry Potter books (since I’m finally reading them). If you haven’t yet, sit down and think about the whole story behind the Harry Potter books. (Or if you hated those, then some other series you know of that is mainly told from the point of view of one character.)
Think about what other stories were happening at the exact same time as the book in question. Who else was involved in the story? Who else could’ve been part of the story. Think what the Harry Potter books would be like if they were told from multiple viewpoints. What if they used the viewpoints of Dumbeldore, Voldemort, Snape, and Harry?
What would have been included then? What would have been excluded? What would the reader have known and when? Would it have been a better story? Worse? Or just different? Who would the target audience have been?
A writer is constantly choosing how to present a story. They decide what matters to the story they’re telling. (Which includes deciding what parts to ignore.) They decide what moments need to be known but not experienced. (So which parts can be told.) They decide what parts are central to the story they’re telling. (In other words, the bits that must be shown.)
They also decide who the reader should know well and who the reader should just know about but not care about. (And use showing for characters that matter and telling for those that don’t. Even within a scene that shows the action, I would argue that the stories of other characters in that scene are only being told.)
I think this is why a lot of writers advocate outlining in advance, because it lets you know what choices you’re going to need to make as a writer. It’s like being a painter and deciding in advance whether you’re painting an ocean scene or a desert scene. The color palette is different. In writing, you choose your points of view and your tense in the same way. (It’s also why when a story gets stuck it can sometimes help to change the point of view or tense.)
So, my takeaway from all of this. Writers should show, tell, and ignore as appropriate to tell the story they need to tell. (And, above all, what matters is that the story you tell engage your readers, however you accomplish that.)
This reminds me of an example in Stephen King’s On Writing: he is discussing writing as telepathy and describes a cage sitting on a red cloth on a table, with a rabbit inside; the rabbit has an eight painted on its back in blue dye. His point is that we see the image the author has created but each see it differently: different details of cage, shade of cloth, &c. However it does not matter as what we actually feel is: why does the rabbit have a blue eight on its back?
I remember interviewing for a job in college and they gave me one of those “what would you do in this problem-solving scenario” and I could not for the life of me get the right answer because it involved a treasure chest and my idea of what a treasure chest looked like didn’t match the interviewer’s. (Think lock in a key hole vs padlock.)
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