Showing and Telling

Funny that the word “persist” turns up as the prompt today. I’ve been looking at the work in progress wondering, “What next?” One direction and it’s a book I’ve already written. The other direction?” Something else completely. 

The only reason to write a story is because you want to. I guess there are people who make a lot of money from the stories they write, but I’m not one of them. 

One of the questions I ask myself when I’m writing is “How do I want to tell this?” With historical fiction, that’s kind of tricky. People reading the story don’t live in that historical world. People in the story do. For me there’s a fine line between offering the reader enough to see and feel that alien world and making it alien to the characters, too.

How much do we really notice about our world in the course of a day? When we walk through our house do we say to ourselves, “She passed the dishwasher then the beige and white cupboards on her way to the backdoor where the 85 pound black short-haired dog and the 75 pound long-haired white dog with the blue eyes were waiting to be let out,”

or do we say (in real life),

“Hang on, guys,” she said opening the back door. “It’s cold out there.”

I think a LOT about how my characters live and function in their world, probably more than I think about anyone reading my books. 

A lot of this hinges on the “Show don’t tell” philosophy. I’ve been aware of that since college. I remember it used to describe the way Hemingway wrote as the quality that set him apart from other writers and disturbed readers back in the day. Godnose he’s no Dickens. He wrote non-action narrative like this (from A Movable Feast):

I remember reading this book years ago and thinking it was fantastic. I still think so, but not for this “show don’t tell” thing, but because of Hemingway’s yearning nostalgia and the innumerable cafe au laits

A show-don’t-tell instruction website gives this example:

Telling: When they embraced she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.

Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and he was shivering.

I don’t think these two little passages say the same thing. How would I write it? I decided to give it a shot. 

His jacket stank of cigarette smoke. She stepped back from their embrace, frightened. “Where have you been?”

Anyway, the first example is grammatically confusing. Who’s scared? She or he? I thought she was scared, but reading it again it seemed it could have been either of them. 

I realized that I’m not sure about this “show don’t tell” stuff or what it actually means any more. It’s far more “Dickensian” now than in Hemingway’s fiction which is very spare and leaves a lot to the reader. It’s like this, from “The Snows of Kilimanjaro:”

THE MARVELLOUS THING IS THAT IT’S painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”

“Is it really?”

“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.”

“Don’t! Please don’t.”

“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?”

The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick-moving shadows as they passed.

“I’m only talking,” he said. “It’s much easier if I talk. But I don’t want to bother you.”

“You know it doesn’t bother me,” she said. “It’s that I’ve gotten so very nervous not being able to do anything. I think we might make it as easy as we can until the plane comes.”

“Or until the plane doesn’t come.”

To me that’s showing, not telling and I like it. No one has a CLUE what’s going on with these people, who they are, where they are, what they look like. They are absolutely engrossed in the imperatives of their moment, as are living people. We don’t know the big birds are vultures. We don’t know squat, and why should we? It’s not us, not our lives, not our situation. Hemingway just opened a window on a random couple having a rather banal sounding conversation, but like conversations between couples in real life, it’s anything but banal.

As a reader, I like that kind of “here we are suddenly in the middle of someone’s real life” narrative. I also like Icelandic sagas which are all tell and poetry.

It’s been my struggle as a writer since the beginning, but I think I’ll persist

Because, fuck it. It keeps me off the streets. 

Here’s a song about persistence.

7 thoughts on “Showing and Telling

  1. Love your mouse with the crash helmet. I tried my lot with writing, but am not a writer. Through photography I realise the details of the world however. I am going though a bit of a bad patch at the moment, no time to relax, but realise how much my hobbies give me. I have read a couple of Hemingway’s books, but must admit his style did not impress me, so cold and neutral, but just my thoughts. You deserve all the success with your stories, the people in them are alive and you capture the interest so well.

  2. I have A Moveable Feast sitting on my bookshelf. I do enjoy Hemingway so will have to pick this one up and read it again. The show and tell instruction is pretty interesting. I had to read it a few times to see the ‘show’ part. This is why I don’t write. I will leave that up to you ’cause you do it so well.

  3. I have to say, I don’t get it. Not showing OR telling. That sounds like the difference between words and pictures. If I want to show you, pictures. If I want to tell you, words. Today, it’s all about woodpeckers anyway. Realizing whenever the Duke feels like it, he jumps the fence and when he’s tired of the woods, he jumps back in. Short of replacing the fence (no can do), I guess we have to assume that he doesn’t go very far and isn’t planning to leave. He seems to like it here.

    Showing? Telling? Jumping?

    • The idea is that “showing” gives the reader pictures. Telling doesn’t. That isn’t at all how I understood the distinction, but the one review of The Price says my book doesn’t show; it tells and is therefore not very well written or interesting. It’s OK with me. I know not every reader likes the same kind of writing.

      I think you need to sternly admonish Duke NOT to run into the woods. It’s really unwise of him, though I definitely understand the urge.

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