Is "Show Don't Tell" always the rule in writing stories?

A break from Alex work to give my opinion on a question that frequently comes up for new writers:

Yesterday a friend commenting on my posts asked:
Just out of curiosity, what is your view of showing versus telling? I wonder this because there seems to be this very hard and fast rule currently that everything possible must be shown rather than told. But if you go back some years and look at what is considered great literature, there is a lot of telling. I recently read a short story from the 1930's by John Cheever which was almost entirely telling, but a really good story.
How do you approach this in your own books, and how do you approach it when looking at a manuscript for Sophia Press?

As a hard-and-fast rule, eliminating all "telling" from your story is usually impossible. Some telling is nearly inevitable: there's no easy way to inform your reader a character's age, for example, without telling. (It's much easier to say, "he was about thirty years old" than to show him having a 30th birthday or to have a friend say, "Now that you're thirty, are you going to settle down?" etc.)

My philosophy, inasmuch as I even have one on the subject, is that both showing and telling should serve the demands of the story. Some stories demand more telling than others. But there are a couple of caveats new authors should remember:

In our culture, movies are the predominant medium, with television being the second most-predominant medium. As Walker Percy acidly observed, more people will watch one Superbowl than will read any particular New York Times Bestseller. So most of us bring our viewing habits to our reading habits.

How does this affect storytelling? Well, we literary types can moan and groan about the predominance of the visual as much as we like, but the fact is, our audience (who, from my view, we are here to serve with our stories, not to teach) prefers that their stories be visual. They enjoy them more, they read them more, they find those stories more moving, more powerful, more entertaining. 

This is the main reason why "telling" has fallen out of fashion since the 1930s: because most modern readers find excessive "telling" is boring to read, simply because it's dificult to visualize, and the modern reader reads by drawing heavily on his visual imagination.

Also there's the element of impatience and escape. When I say that modern readers are impatient, it doesn't mean we only want short stories: quite the contrary! But we have a lot of stress and distraction in our lives, and we don't want to have to work so hard at trying to enjoy our entertainment: we appreciate it when the story helps us launch into escape mode immediately by immersing us in action or conflict or another world.

We modern readers like the sense of being immersed in a story, part of the action, flowing along with the narrative. We like it when our books read like movies: when we can just sit back and watch it all go by. When the narrative is halted for any reason, it can be jarring. So authors shouldn't do it, unless they have a very good reason to.

And, let's be honest, authors make the most money when their books are bought and made into movies. Books that contain more showing than telling are easier to translate into film: hence are more likely to be bought. Any writing teacher worth his salt is going to point that out to his students.

So if your story requires telling (and some do), make certain that the telling is:
a) humorous and entertaining, stylistically fun to read
b) heavily visual so that your reader isn't bored.
I've always been a very visual writer (I think in images and don't consider myself a particularly strong stylist) so accepting the viewpoint of the modern reader hasn't been difficult for me. I *am* in many ways, a modern reader myself! I don't have a literary background, and studied television, not literature, which may indicate my inclination. Scriptwriters must think in images and seldom, if ever, are allowed to tell their audiences anything. But I don't believe that this is a hard-and-fast rule for books.

As an editor, again, I primarily look at storytelling technique to find out if it is adequately serving the story. I don't start out with a set of rules in my head and look at a manuscript to find out if it obeys them: I open the MS and read it the way any reader would.

But when I come to a part that is wooden, clunky, or boring, I stop reading and try to figure out why. That's what editors do. And yes, sometimes the reason it's boring is because the reader has yanked me out of the story in order to subject me to several paragraphs of telling. This is really annoying when I was enjoying being immersed in the escape, or the argument, or the complex situation the character was grappling with. Once you've been sucked into the story, you don't like to leave.

Or, if I'm not interested in the story at all, I often discover that the reason I'm not is because the author is summarizing action and events instead of involving me in it. They're telling me about how the character responded to, say, his mom's death or his father's betrayal instead of showing me and letting me have a chance to feel the character's pain or rage.

I don't notice 'telling' if the author uses it to explain action I've just seen and am interested in knowing more about. I don't mind 'telling' if the author halts the narrative to give some funny commentary on what the characters have just been doing. So long as I'm entertained, I'm good.

But most authors whose MS I read have not yet mastered the storytelling form, and so 'telling' for them is an easy-out, a way to dump information on the reader, or to moralize or preach to me. They often don't recognize what a jolt they've given me, their reader, when they halt the story for a 'telling' session. They don't realize how non-engaged I am when they start their story by giving me information that doesn't seem releveant to me instead of pulling me into a fascinating situation.

It's a tricky operation, storytelling. And for most beginning authors, the mantra "show don't tell" is useful because it helps them learn to see their story the way their readers will: it gets them away from summarizing and keeping us distant from the action and instead forces them to learn to let the reader share in the action.

Some masters of storytelling will always be able to break the rules and still entertain us. But for beginning writers, learning the parameters of their audience, and accepting their limitations and needs, will be more helpful than setting out to ignore rules they haven't yet mastered.

Hope this helps!


Kevin Clark said…
That's a very insightful response, that it's not so much showing-versus-telling as the idea of keeping someone within the flow of the story. As you say, always showing isn't really possible, so applying an impossible rule doesn't make sense, but you can always apply the rule, "Don't take your reader out of the story."
Amy said…
This makes a lot of sense. I've read your fairy tale novels and it was easy to picture all of them as movies while I was reading them!
Anonymous said…
I just want to say that reading this article came at a perfect time for me. I am trying to decide how to open a story I'm working on, and was struggling with "telling" instead of showing the beginning. Thank you so much for your wonderful article Mrs. Doman!
That was a very interesting and thought-provoking response.
Personally, I weary of "movie type" books, and love getting heavy reading like A Tale of Two Cities or The Pilgrims Regress, both of which tell a lot more than show. However, when I thought about my own writing, I realized that I do write visually so to speak; I see everything like a movie in my mind and naturally try to give my readers the same view.
So, I think perhaps a lot of us (at least I) are willing to wade through books by older authors, but want anything not "tried and true" to be easier and more enjoyable like a movie. I don't know if that makes any sense but it's interesting to think about. :)

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