By Victoria Mixon
So, I’m going to explain to you guys today the difference between showing and telling and why everyone’s always saying to you, “Show, don’t tell!” even while you ransack contemporary fiction in vain for proof of this rule. Wouldn’t you like to know?
- Showing = storytelling in scenes in which characters move and speak against a described background
- Telling = storytelling in exposition, explaining to us what the characters are up to rather than letting us see them be up to it for ourselves
We’ll start with the bottom of the barrel of published fiction and go up the scale until we get to the cream at the top:
Bottom of the barrel: Tell really badly
This is where a good chunk of contemporary best-selling genre fiction falls. Exposition in cliches with shallow, unoriginal characters and nothing to surprise or alarm the average Walmart shopper.
I don’t have to tell you who these authors are. They’re all over the PW best seller list.
Close to the bottom of the barrel: Tell mediocrely-to-competently
This is where most contemporary quote-unquote ‘literary’ fiction falls. Swear to god, people, I keep reading the books everyone’s talking about, and they keep being terrible. Largely exposition, often disorganized (artistes don’t need structure—they have inspiration instead), and flailing wildly at being ‘meaningful’ like old phone company commercials.
But they keep getting nominated for awards and awarded them because there’s apparently nothing the hell else out there being published by the major publishers, and the award judges rarely, if ever, recognize anything published by Podunk Press out of Green, Iowa.
In fact, most contemporary novels that win awards they shouldn’t are set in either the New York City area or New England where the award judges’ cocktail crowd can locate them (or sometimes, lately, Chicago, because that’s where Oprah lives). Chang-Rae Lee, McDermott, Oscar Wao, even Richard Powers’ psychiatrist.
Boy, am I bored with New York City.
Right smack in the middle of the barrel: Show really badly
This is where most forgotten best-selling fiction of the past falls and a great deal of contemporary genre fiction, including a lot of best-selling crap, also on the PW best seller list.
Someone’s trying. Sadly, they’re just not trying hard enough. And although it’s poor quality, it’s still more riveting than a lot of yammering exposition that doesn’t even try to engage the reader viscerally except through instructions:
“Time for you to have feelings now.”
Top of the middle of the barrel: Show mediocrely-to-competently and sometimes even brilliantly
This is where most genre fiction of the past falls. What used to be dismissed as ‘pulp’ was better-written than most of what we now call, inexplicably, ‘literary.’ I spent the past nine months wading through every single dimestore mystery novel of the 1930s-’60s I could find on the American West Coast, and, wow, I know of which I speak.
The cream at the top of the barrel: Show consistently brilliantly
This is where most of the greats fall, both mainstream/best-selling/literary and genre fiction of the past and fiction of an even further past when there was no real delineation. Dickens, Austen, Bronte, O. Henry, Dylan Thomas, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Hemingway, Jean Rhys, James Thurber, Chandler, Horace Walpole, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Keep on adding the names of the greats, whether they were (like Dickens) best-sellers in their time or (like Jane Bowles) virtual unknowns—they’re pretty much all in this category. Dashiell Hammett made his reputation for writing an entire novel in nothing but brilliant showing, just to prove it could be done and no one would miss the telling at all.
The iridescent light of genius on the surface of the barrel: Tell brilliantly
This is where a very few of the greats fall, most of that scattered bits of brilliant telling throughout works that are predominantly brilliant showing. Thorton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the only novel I can think of off the top of my head written almost entirely in brilliant exposition. (And even he couldn’t do telling 100% the way Hammett, a lesser writer, did with showing.)
Raymond Chandler was a nut with a good comedy line, but he only used them to add character to otherwise gorgeous showing.
There’s a certain amount of James Joyce’s experimental work that falls in this category, but really even he had to rely on scenes for the bulk of what he accomplished.
Henry James could tell with the best of them, but he also always kept his telling firmly rooted in showing.
And Camus did some magical stuff with telling by using the tried-&-true techniques of showing to make it just that magical.
Now, you’re going to notice something fascinating about this scale: Telling badly and mediocrely is on one end, showing is in the middle, and telling brilliantly is on the other end. And even those writers so amazing they could tell brilliantly have rarely gotten away with more than a very little bit of telling in the midst of all their showing.
In other words:
Telling badly—>mediocrely = really, really easy, but fairly useless to the reader
Showing badly—>brilliantly = not easy, but not impossible, either, and good—>gold to the reader
Telling brilliantly = almost impossible, and usually only gold as seasoning, anyway
This is the reason, people, you have always been told and will always continue to be told: “Show, don’t tell.”
And, yes, I really did say even a lot of what’s considered award-winning contemporary fiction falls these days in the worst categories possible without being simply unpublishable. It’s true, and you know it. But you probably don’t know why.
I’ll explain that in another post.
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MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .
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LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .
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ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights, and her second novel, Sandara. Read more. . .
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .
GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans' fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and line edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland. Read more. . .
LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ writes literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I edited Mercado-Fernandez' debut novel, The Shoebox, and her up-coming The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .
JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff's abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .
LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star, which agents had told him to throw away. Read more. . .
In addition, I work with scores of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this wonderful literary art and craft.
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