First off: my book tour is now posted here on my website. You canjust click on In Person and you’re there. I will be in or near five cities and after that locally in New York and Connecticut. I can hardly say how much I would like to meet you all. Sometimes I fantasize about a big party for all of us.
On November 11, 2016, Enchanted wrote, I taught myself to write from reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In it, there’s a strong omniscient narrator who delivers the information as if from afar. Example: “He was a good-looking man of twenty-five years, well-educated, wealthy, with excellent manners, but he was still unmarried.” I really like it, but some of the writing manuals I’m reading discourage that kind of narrative. They say to show, not tell. Like, they would want me to SHOW that he’s educated by, say, showing him reading a philosophy book, or SHOW that he’s well-mannered by showing him in conversation. So, is writing like the classics bad because it tells instead of shows? Just curious.
Three writers chimed in.
Christie V Powell: I’d say it’s okay if you have a really interesting voice. It’s especially useful in first person, where the whole thing is in one character’s voice, so that even the most telling of paragraphs also reviews the characteristics of the narrator. It’s a bit harder in omniscient, but in that case the narrator is almost a part of the story too. Dickens or Austen are as much a part of the story as their characters, and they have an interesting voice to match that reveals a lot about who they are. It’s harder to pull off nowadays but certainly doable.
Writeforfun: Enchanted, that’s a fascinating question! I’ve always liked the way some books, especially older ones like Jane Austen’s and others, are written in such distinct styles. I know all authors will have their own style in some way or another, but I’ve always found it interesting how most modern books use the same basic “show, don’t tell” styles, as well as including approximately the same amount of descriptions, as opposed to books from different time periods.
On another note, in regards to style, J. M. Barrie’s might be one of my favorite distinct voices! Aside from when Gail wrote the Fairies books intentionally leaning toward his sort of style, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything written quite like it! You?
Emma G. C.: Yes, the classics do tend to tell more than show. In this instance, the telling is very straightforward and informative, which can actually be a good thing. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time describing some trivial information about a character and would rather TELL readers this information so you can SHOW this character’s actions, manner of speech, and what they look like, then I say it’s completely allowed. It might be a good idea to SHOW in the next sentence, maybe by describing the way his voice sounds or the way he is dressed. As long as you have a healthy mix of showing and telling, you’re good. Jane Austen still shows, even though she may tell more often. And honestly, most people don’t go around saying they would have preferred it if Jane Austen used more description or showed more often. No, they instead focus on how well the plot and characters are written. That’s why it’s a classic.
Writeforfun, I’m with you about Barrie! Every writer is unique, but he’s the uniquest–which the internet tells me is a word, and since it is, I think it was invented for Barrie. Thank you for recognizing that I chased after his voice and may have gotten it a little.
I don’t like books on writing issuing orders: show, don’t tell. Writing is complicated. Telling may work here, showing there. We writers have to be versatile to serve our stories.
Showing immerses the reader in the world of the story, provides the detail that makes it all real. I love to show! It’s thrilling to find the gesture or speech quirk or habit of thought that establishes a character, the object that captures a setting, the sensation that nails a moment.
But it’s impossible to only show. Telling applies to more than describing a character. It can compress time, as in, They argued for another fifteen minutes until Jenna stormed out. Marla collapsed on the couch and slept for twelve hours while her family tiptoed around her. If the reader already knows or doesn’t have to know what the argument was about, this telling is a great way to move the story forward into the next important scene. However, if the reader needs to hear the argument or to know anything else embedded in my sentences, showing is the way to go. For example, if the people in Marla’s family are generally incapable of being considerate, the reader will wonder why their behavior has changed. A dab of showing–or more telling–will be required.
I also love to tell. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. In the beginning of The Two Princesses of Bamarre below, I’d argue that the lines of poetry are showing–even though the words are pure telling–because they aren’t relating the ongoing story; they’re artifacts of an earlier age. What follows the poetry is definitely telling:
Out of a land laid waste
To a land untamed,
The lad Drualt led
A ruined, rag-tag band.
In his arms, tenderly,
He carried Bruce,
The child king,
First ruler of Bamarre.
So begins Drualt, the epic poem of Bamarre’s greatest hero. No one knew whether its tales were true or were only inventions of a long-ago anonymous bard. We didn’t even know if a man named Drualt had ever lived.
It didn’t matter. He was Bamarre’s ideal. Drualt was strong and brave, and kindhearted and jolly too. He fought Bamarre’s monsters – the ogres, gryphons, specters, and dragons that still plague us – and he helped his sovereign found our kingdom.
Today Bamarre needed a hero more than ever. The monsters were slaughtering hundreds of Bamarrians every year, and the Gray Death carried away even more.
I was no hero. The dearest wishes of my heart were for safety and tranquility. The world was a perilous place, wrong for the likes of me.
The last paragraph exemplifies a danger of telling. In it, I (through Addie) tell the reader what to think of her. Once I’ve done that, she has to stay fearful unless I put her through a process and she changes.
Our characters and our descriptions of them–what we tell about them and what we show–have to line up. If we say outright that a character is shy, for example, he needs to be shy. Sometimes this can result in characters who are less nuanced than they might otherwise be. As many of you know, I adore Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book ever. I actually like it when Austen tells me what to think. Still, her characters are a tad static. Mrs. Bennet for example is described as a very silly woman, and she stays that way, is never jolted for an instant into a moment of judiciousness. Mr. Darcy changes in the course of the novel–a little. The reader’s idea of him does shift, but fundamentally he remains the same: honorable, loyal, deliberate, grave, steadfast. However, if we avoid telling, we can give our characters a little more elbow room. They still have to be consistent and identifiable, but more surprises and more fluidity are possible. This is a more naturalistic approach to character.
So showing helps with character depth.
I went hunting for examples of old-fashioned telling and found this example, and it horrifies me. The excerpt below is from the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter (high school or middle school–I’m not sure), which I read decades ago. First we get telling and then showing mixed with telling in the dialogue that follows. I’ve condensed the excerpt a little–without changing the tone. I’m troubled by what seems to me to be woman-hating. The only thoughtful speech is given to the male speaker at the end. I don’t remember if Hester Prynne is the single good and complicated female in the book. Maybe one of you can say. It’s a great example of literature with an ax to grind, something I think we should avoid.
The age had not so much refinement, that any sense of impropriety restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from stepping forth into the public ways, and wedging their not unsubstantial persons… into the throng nearest to the scaffold at an execution. Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding than in their fair descendants, separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother had transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not character of less force and solidity than her own. The women who were now standing about the prison-door stood within less than half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her countrywomen: and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition…. There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone.
“Goodwives,” said a hard-featured dame of fifty, “it would be greatly for the public behoof if we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne. If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not.”
“People say,” said another, “that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.”
“The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch—that is a truth,” added a third autumnal matron. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she—the naughty baggage—little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!”
“Ah, but,” interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, “let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.”
“What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown or the flesh of her forehead?” cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die; is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray.”
“Mercy on us, goodwife!” exclaimed a man in the crowd, “is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows? That is the hardest word yet!”
Such unkind descriptions of these women! But if you disagree with me or see it another way, please weigh in!
I also revisited Pride and Prejudice and found myself criticizing my beloved Austen for this line, which comes after Lady Catherine, in her heedless way, has been rude to Elizabeth:
Mr. Darcy looked a little ashamed of his aunt’s ill-breeding, and made no answer.
We’re getting deep into the weeds here, but if Jane Austen were my student, I would say, How does Darcy look when he looks a little ashamed? Does he blush? Roll his eyes? If yes, just say so. Or is it something with his eyebrows, his nose, his lips? Does he wring his hands? Hop three times on his right foot?
I’m not sure I have a larger point about the sentence–maybe that we have to watch out for vagueness when we’re telling.
I hope I’ve conveyed that I don’t come down on one side or the other. Telling and showing are both essential, and the more we write the more automatically our gear shifts will be.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Write the argument between Marla and Jenna. This is artificial, just for this prompt, but start the scene with a sentence or two describing the personality of each–telling the reader what to think. Move into showing their argument. If your showing changes what you told about them, revise the description.
∙ Write the scene with Marla’s family while she sleeps. Stick to telling.
∙ Write the scene with Marla’s family while she sleeps. Stick to showing.
∙ Creation myths, in my experience, are mostly telling. From reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, I understand that everything began with Chaos, which was shapeless and disorganized, until she (Chaos) gave birth to Night and Erebus (the depths where death is). Somehow, from the two of them, an egg is laid, from which hatches Love. Use mostly showing to write this creation myth or any other, or one you make up. Take the reader there.
Have fun, and save what you write!