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.
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, I keep reading the books everyone’s talking about, and they keep being terrible. Largely exposition, often disorganized (artistes don’t need structure), and flailing wildly at being ‘meaningful.’
But they keep getting nominated for awards and awarded them because there’s apparently nothing 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 New York City or New England, where the award judges’ cocktail crowd can locate them (or sometimes, lately, Chicago, because that’s where Oprah lives).
Boy, am I bored with New York.
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 stuff, 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 exposition that doesn’t 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 ‘literary.’ I spent the past nine years wading through every single dimestore mystery novel of the 1930s-’60s I could find on the American West Coast, and, wow, is it an education.
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 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.
The iridescent light of genius on the surface of the barrel: Tell brilliantly
And this is where a very few of the greats fall, most of it 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 in his telling 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 that 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, a lot of what’s considered award-winning contemporary fiction does fall these days into the worst categories possible without being simply unpublishable. I’ll explain that in another post.
8 thoughts on “The 6 Degrees of Show vs. Tell, Rated by Quality”
Great list here Victoria, and I agree with your formula.
There’s a few I would add to the “iridescent light of genius…” : Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain, (I like his nonfiction more than his fiction), Eudora Welty and Joyce Carol Oates.
Of course we can’t list them all, or even think of them all, but what do you think of these? Would you put them in the same category, or a different one?
Thanks for another great post!
Oh, absolutely, Deanna. But notice that, even when you’re a genius, you rely almost entirely on brilliant showing for the bulk of your work. That creates the contrast that makes your brilliant telling leap off the page and smack an epiphany right out of the forehead of your reader.
All four of the ones you cite fit into both categories of brilliance. Well, pretty much everyone in #6 fits into #5. That’s how they learned their craft so well.
(And, yeah, Twain was a dreamboat with nonfiction, which is a whole other kettle of fish. But you know what makes Innocents Abroad and Roughing It so fabulous? That’s right. The way he showed them.)
I’m really sick of reading books and stories set in New York City, too, Victoria. And the parts of New England inhabited only by rich folks, e.g. those in Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories. Chang-rae Lee’s latest book did not impress me at all even when he moved the location to Italy. Too much melodrama and coincidence.
It’s kind of disheartening to read the books at the top of the bestseller lists today. Dan Brown. Stephen King. Nora Roberts. Vince Flynn. Patricia Cornwell. James Patterson. Wait. Did I say “kind” of disheartening? It’s terribly disheartening. 🙁
We need more really great fiction. I like to read truly good books.
I love the way you tie your advice to books and authors we know (and if we don’t , we should). I love picking up the books and actually reading the examples after reading your blog posts.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, and thank you for doing it with humor and grace. It’s appreciated.
And everyone, beginner or advanced, should read your book. I did, and I loved it.
I forgot. I wanted to mention William Trevor. I think he’s the greatest living writer working in the English language today. In my opinion, everyone who wants to write needs to read Trevor. My favorites are “Felicia’s Journey” and “Two Lives.” Trevor can tell gorgeously, though he shows as well. But when he shows, it’s often with only a line or two. He amazes me time and time again. Trevor says that one of his biggest influences was Thomas Hardy, and Hardy was certainly a “teller,” though Trevor seems to have loved Hardy for the same reason I do – his tragedy. Oh, if I could write like William Trevor, I could die happy! He does more with one line than the bestselling authors do in their whole books. He can break your heart in fifteen words or less. His prose is like Chocolate Decadence – to die for.
Read him, people, writers or just readers. William Trevor, who is often called “the Irish Chekhov” is even better than Chekhov, in my opinion. Despite all his awards and talent, Trevor is humble. He says his prose is “just prose.” It’s not. It’s really something special.
Thanks for the recommendation, Gabrielle—Trevor just went on my wish list for the holiday.
And thank you for your kind words about my book! I’m so glad it’s leading you to the novels themselves. They are the real gurus, for all of us.
This is such a great way of laying it out … i love this view of show vs tell. I am struggling with recognizing show vs tell (as i’m sure most new writers do) and i very much appreciate this post. Happy holidays to you 🙂
Thank you for this useful blogpost. I will keep it in mind next time I write a short story.
A few days ago, I finished Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen. In the Netherlands (where I live), this novel is presented as one of the best American novels in years. I think it is a great book and I have been thinking about it for some time. The novel has shown me things about art, freedom (of course) and rules/boundaries, about jobs and worklife and businesses, about nature conservancy and sustainability.
What I would like to know is how well-known Frantzen and his novel are in the US? And in what category of your barrell he would be according to you.
Thanks in advance,
You know, Karin, Freedom is all over the news here, especially since Oprah named it for her Book Club, but I haven’t read it so I can’t say anything about the category.
I can tell you Oprah’s taste is not infallible. The last one of her Book Club selections I read was a ridiculous hash of uncontrolled plot elements, random gaps in storytelling, and general amateurish blindness, revealing mostly an inexplicable lack of professional expertise with the craft of writing. She appeared to have chosen it simply because it showcased Chicago, her hometown, and the author was known in New York publishing circles. It’s sad, but that does seem to be the trend in American fiction these days.
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