Friday, February 4, 2011

Anders on How Showing Can Bludgeon

Charlie Jane Anders of io9 argues that there are times where writers ought to do a lot more telling than showing. Excerpt:
One piece of writing advice gets held up as more sacred than any other: Show, don't tell. But this maxim can ruin your story-telling, if you treat it like a law. Here are five situations where telling is actually better.

Like most rules of thumb, "Show don't tell" is excellent advice most of the time — but people often apply it too broadly, or in situations where it hurts more than it helps. You have to be aware of the spirit, as well as the letter, of this particular law. Writers have a tendency to lecture readers -- and this goes double for science fiction and fantasy writers, who have a lot of worldbuildy stuff to get out of the way. It's definitely never a good idea to bludgeon your readers with information.
Read the whole thing. "Bludgeon" -- that's the key word in Anders' analysis, isn't it? I remember reading James Joyce's Ulysses in college, the brick-like Gabler edition of the text to one side, a critical study to the other and copious notes scribbled during a lecture in front of me. I knew Joyce was doing something intricate and amazing with the text. I also knew it made my head hurt. Perhaps the literary greats can get away with pounding readers with their compositional prowess. But I'm not sure we genre folks can. Anders' piece reminds me that authorial brilliance shouldn't necessarily beat aside readerly enjoyment.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Scattercat said...

I've never thought of the show v. tell rule as written in stone; mostly, I've always taken it as an admonishment to avoid repetition or blandness. Why tell something you could just as easily show without breaking the action off for narration?

I've got to say, I don't really think any of the examples in that article sell the main point (and often the examples were counterproductive). The article touched on it briefly, but what I think the show vs. tell issue boils down to is this:

Telling is faster but less engaging.

That's all you need to know to make an informed decision. If there are details that aren't central to the story but are necessary to understand it, then telling those details is completely valid. Don't waste time and wordcount showing what could be told without reducing the story's impact, and don't drop into lecture mode for the central thematic portions of your narrative. Showing takes more time to write out, and it also requires some buy-in from your reader, so you should ensure you use it effectively and for things which your readers will be happy about having their emotional energy invested in.

For me and my tastes, I prefer as little telling as possible. I like being confused and working out what's going on. I'm kind of weird, though.

Loren Eaton said...

The article touched on it briefly ...

That's true, and a pithy summation like you gave probably would've helped. Truth be told, though, I found Anders' five points pretty convincing myself.

My attitude towards the issue depends mostly on what the author is trying to do -- and how skillfully he can do it. Really talented folks like Gibson and Tolkien can get away with showing because their narratives are interesting enough to carry us through the confusion. But if an author is only trying to flex his literary muscles or slap genre conventions in the face, I lose interest. An author's first work is to delight his readers.

Anyway, that an $4 will get you a cuppa at Starbucks ...

Scattercat said...

I agree with the points in the article, but the examples were pretty bad. Most of the "showing" examples were a lot better than the "telling" examples when the whole point was to try and show the exact opposite.

Which I suppose kind of illustrates the point, if you look at it sideways.

Loren Eaton said...

And it's quite a lot of fun to look at things sideways sometimes ...