“Show, don’t tell” – it’s a cop out

“Show, don’t tell” is becoming the editorial mantra of the MTV generation with Lit Fic aspirations  and a whole set of creative writing courses behind them.

Of course there are times when show is a lot better than tell but the aversion to tell is a fad that I think comes from a limited fiction diet.

Show rather than tell is the natural preference of a generation who see the film before they read the book.

They want their fiction to preserve the myth that they are free agents who draw their own conclusion from the scenes presented to them. Fine when it works but surely that is not the only way to read?

It seems that the post-baby-boom generation is afraid of the authorial voice because it might suggest that someone actually wrote the story.  It seems they believed Barthes when he told them the author is dead.

So here you are, the author, with something important to say and a succinct, pithy, direct and original way of saying it and the editor is going:

“No, don’t tell me, I’ll get it in a minute. I know you’re trying to express that lost-sock-in-the-laundromat-of-life existential panic thing the French are always on about”.

It’s like trying to talk about a book to someone who would rather play charades.

It doesn’t matter that you tell rather than show as long as you tell well. That’s why they call it storytelling.

One of my favourite opening lines to a novel  demonstractes great telling. It comes from Anne Tyler’s “Back When We Were Grown Ups”

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

Imagine Ms. Tyler’s editor putting “show don’t tell” in the margin next to that.

I’m not saying that showing is wrong; it’s something any writer needs to be able to do. I’m saying that only showing is a cop out. Part of the challenge of creative writing is to tell so that your readers will not just believe you but will feel fully engaged in what you are describing.

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