A philosopher’s curmudgeonly take on writing rules and advice.
“Show the readers everything; tell them nothing.” Ernest Hemingway
Telling can of course, sometimes be useful to summarize, generalize, or make quick transitions. We may need the reader to know that something happened without dragging her through the dramatic presentation of it. And so she tell it rather than shows it. But for the important matters, I agree with Hemingway.
Here are some good reasons to show rather than tell:
- Showing puts us into the scene and engages our imagination. We see Chekhov’s moonlight, we don’t just believe it’s there.
- If the writer shows the man’s jaw working and shows him wielding a shovel to take out a car’s headlights, she gives us some work to do. We have to figure out from the dramatic scene that the man is angry. This makes us more actively involved in the story, more invested, and more likely to care about him and his potential victims.
- Showing also gives us options. We might choose to conclude that the man is frustrated or in agony rather than angry. This makes us feel less put upon by the writer. (Although it makes the writer’s work more difficult. In fact, showing is always more difficult than telling. Which is perhaps part of why it is emphasized so much.)
- And finally, perhaps most importantly, if we are shown something with our own eyes we are more likely to believe it than if we are merely told it. This is true with car accidents and kisses, and especially true of controversial moral claims. So, if a writer shows us that polygamy is morally OK, we are much more likely to agree than if she simply tells us.
Sol Stein in On Writing says that modern readers, raised on TV and movies, expect a lot of the story to be presented in scene with dialog. Dialog is showing. We get to hear directly what the characters say in their own voices.
But this raises a hard question. If showing is so much better than telling, why not give up on books altogether, and move directly to TV and movies? Why describe a moonlit night, when you can show a photograph? Why describe a voice, when you can play a recording? Why describe a sex scene when you can film or perform one, for that matter? My sons might say, “Why indeed? Pass the remote,” but anyone who takes writing and reading seriously is not ready to give up on books. If you agree, and still cling to Hemingway’s adage, you have a puzzle.
One tempting answer is that books are a higher art form. But this answer is just silly snobbishness. Hamlet, performed on screen by a great actor such as Derek Jacobi or David Tennant is perhaps the highest form of literary art available. Much contemporary TV drama is, in my opinion, better written than most contemporary prose.
Part of the answer is that we don’t just want to show visible things like moonlight and wrinkles and daisies. We want to show the invisible: forgiveness and love and the evil of war and these are not something that you can just point a camera at. Words provide tools for showing these things that visual images don’t.
So, show more often than tell, I think. But strive to show the invisible as well as the visible.
If you have any thoughts on this writing rule, on the puzzle I discuss here, or on the general project of my blog (e.g., some writing rule or advice that needs investigating) please comment.