The Tyranny of Show vs Tell

If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve heard many times the bromide “show, don’t tell,” but often the showing part dominates the telling and becomes tyrannical. As a writer friend once pointed out, when we’re writing fiction, we are storytelling and not storyshowing, and there are many ways to tell an engaging story.

Of course, some beginning writers do tend to summarize more than dramatize. They haven’t learned yet how to traverse between generalities and specifics. And in our early drafts, even more experienced writers often are just trying to capture their characters before they can disappear. Showing, then, tends to happen later in the drafting process.

However, it is important to know when one or the other is required, and that’s the advantage of using this shorthand workshop comment. When we show, we try to embellish scenes and important moments through using descriptive details that create images. Dialogue also helps to nail down character traits and interaction. When we tell, we are usually summarizing background information or periods that don’t need to be in the spotlight. We don’t want to call too much attention to some aspects of the tale we’re conveying.

I’m all for using whatever tools are at our disposal, and I don’t reject the idea that knowing how to show and tell effectively are important elements in writing narrative. However, they aren’t the only “show” in town. There are other ways to create drama and develop character that often get overlooked by the overused workshop mantra.

I’ve been rereading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and I’m absorbed by her characters’ inner lives. Not only does Woolf violate many of the strictures we hear in writing workshops about the dangers of switching points of view within a chapter, but she also rarely resorts to showing or dramatizing a scene. Instead, she seems to inhabit her settings and characters’ interiors, taking the reader with her inside their inner worlds, portraying how complex they are. I feel as if I’m watching a movie of their internal processes.

Of course, Woolf isn’t the only writer who takes a different approach to creating compelling narratives by not depending on show versus tell. W. G. Sebald’s hybrid “novels” have their own narrative logic that also disrupt the usual notion of what constitutes a story. And there are many others in this category: Samuel Beckett, David Foster Wallace, Proust, and other likeminded authors who aren’t afraid of a character’s introspection. In fact, I’m often bored by passages in some naturalistic works that race along, fueled by external action, forgetting to linger and let their creations sink down into the unconscious from which we have emerged.

What’s your take on this topic?