Show and Tell

I’ve noticed something weird creeping into the reviews of recent books. It’s mainly in the online reviews of customers at Amazon, B&N, and similar sites, but I’m finding it in more and more “professional” reviews by “professional” critics in major publications as well. I’m referring to this sudden, apparently universal opinion that authors should “show, don’t tell.”

Excuse me?

Yes, folks, it seems that the “creative writing” courses in our high school and university English departments are now grooming untold masses of youngsters to go forth and ply their trade by “showing” and not “telling.” With this wisdom–obviously cribbed from screenwriting courses–they are to create lean, kinetic prose in which little is spoken or described. Action is everything. The characters should DO this and DO that and GO GO GO. “Relating” or “recounting” something is frowned upon. Let’s get rid of those adjectives and replace them with active verbs! Show, don’t tell!!!

Now you know why I have never in my life taken a “creative writing” course. I was warned against them by successful professional writers at a very early age, and I’ve always been grateful for the advice. I learned to write the old-fashioned way, by reading. I excelled in English classes, where I learned a lot about grammar and usage and sentence construction. But English Lit was my real schoolroom. Required and elective reading lists taught me more about the art of writing than any professor. And nowhere in all those works of American Lit, World Lit, and Modern Lit did I find a single author who subscribed to “show, don’t tell.”

Imagine telling Dickens, Austen, Melville, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Nabokov, Updike, Cheever, Brookner, Byatt, Atwood, Morrison, Conroy, Oates, McMurtry, McEwan, or Amis (father and son) to “show, don’t tell.” I invite you to try that with anyone on this list who’s still around, and I want to be there when you do. And those are just the ones who write in English!

I just read two new mystery novels, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Saint Zita Society by Ruth Rendell. Both books are solid, lively suspense stories, and I heartily recommend them to you. But be warned: In both books, the most important things we learn about the characters occur in those characters’ minds, while they are doing nothing more than talking or–omigosh!–thinking. I was never bored while I was reading these books, and, judging from the brisk sales of both titles, no one else is, either. But if you look at the reader reviews for either title on Amazon, you’ll find scores of fresh young talents and future award-winning writers taking both women to task for “telling” when they should be “showing.” I hope that Ms. Flynn, a successful journalist turned bestselling author, and especially Ms. Rendell, arguably our greatest living crime writer, feel properly chastened and foolish for having ignored this fundamental truth of “creative” writing.

“Show, don’t tell” is a maxim that was popularized in screenwriting courses, and it’s a good one…for screenwriting. If theater is about the spoken word (telling), cinema is all about the visual image (showing). A screewriter must transform everything in her/his story to what we can see on the screen. Fiction writers, however, have no such restriction, and we never did. We show things, sure. But we also tell and tell ’til the cows come home, and what we are doing is not wrong.

When was the last time a child, tucked up in bed, asked Mommy to SHOW a story? If Mommy is Meryl Streep or Martha Graham, I suppose she can go into an elaborate pantomime or interpretive dance, but most mommies simply TELL the kid a story. The written tradition comes down to us from that oral tradition; we want to be TOLD a story. When I write, I show AND tell, and so does every other decent, professional writer I know. I wish they’d teach that in “creative writing” courses.