Show Don’t Tell or Show and Tell?
I’m sure you’ll all have heard this at some point from your creative writing tutors. In all the feedback I write, it’s definitely the thing I talk about most. But why is that? When might there be exceptions? This blog post is here to talk a little about these rules and the possibilities for breaking them – we are writers after all!
In The Creative Writing Coursebook Julia Bell compares these two extracts:
She curled up on the bed. From deep down inside her came a pitiful cry for a love that wasn’t there. It was lost to her. She thrashed herself about, trying to prevent herself from being engulfed.
She lay on the bed and curled up so tight her knees were pressing into her eye sockets.
The example really lays this bare, doesn’t it? The first example is so vague that we cannot relate to it. A love that wasn’t there? Lost to her? Engulfed? A reader can’t see, smell, hear, touch or taste any of these things. Whereas with the second example, we can see the character on the bed, we can feel the tension of curling up tightly, we can feel the pressure of her knees against her face. It acts upon the reader not just in their mind, but in their body as well.
If I am ever worried about showing vs telling in my own work, I tend to look at the situation from the perspective of the reader. A reader told something will go away knowing it. A reader shown something will go away having interpreted it and worked it out for themselves. And if you’re a fan of the ‘learn by doing’ method, you’ll know that the second option means that the greater engagement created by showing means that this is the writing that is likely to stay with the reader for longer – perhaps the image or the texture or the sound of the words will be lingering in their head for days.
A big fan of this method was Ernest Hemingway, whose ‘Iceberg Theory’ is essentially a version of the same thing. In Chapter 16 of Death in the Afternoon he writes:
‘If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.’
So there’s plenty of evidence for showing rather than telling here. I don’t think we can dispute this. However, as soon as you make a rule, something is always going to come along and change it:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
There’s no denying that this is a bold, powerful poem. I also think it is beautiful and moving. But there we are, straight away, in that first line, faced with an abstract: You do not have to be good. We are told that. The poem goes on to mention some hefty abstract concepts, in fact. Despair. Love. Loneliness. Imagination. These are all things that we cannot grasp with our senses as readers. Oliver is definitely telling us about these things.
However, there are also some beautiful images here too – things that get the reader looking and hearing and feeling; the ‘clear pebbles of rain’ ‘the clean blue air’ ‘the soft animal of your body’ the ‘harsh and exciting’ call of the geese.
I think it is through the balance of these two aspects that Mary Oliver makes her poem work. She makes her philosophical argument ‘You do not have to be good’ alongside images that create a powerful experience for the reader. So next time you go through your work picking out every abstract noun and binning it, instead ask yourself what you’ve used to balance it. It may be that you needed it after all.