The following piece was runner-up in Cardiff Writers’ Circle Article Competition 2022. It is offered here because in casting its cold eye, or certainly a luke-warm eye, on one of the Commandments of Creative Writing it may, perhaps, provoke reflection, rage, or indifference.
‘Show don’t tell’
Whenever I hear this well-meant advice, whether directly from Creative Writing Tutors or offered during feedback sessions at Cardiff Writers’ Circle Open Manuscript meetings, I feel uneasy. Any prescription, let alone proscription, dogma, if you like, and ‘show don’t tell’ is, of course, all three, begs the question, ‘Sez who?
Well, in this case sez, or, said, Hollywood film studios. ‘Show don’t tell’ began life in the early days of cinema. It was the studios’ reminder to their screenwriters to liberate themselves from their literary backgrounds and produce scripts exploiting the potential of the new medium.
New medium, new techniques. Well and good. Except. Except that somewhere along the line that sensible advice to script writers new to film was turned back on itself and became a commandment for novelists, short story writers and poets. As if the advent of movies rendered three thousand (or more) years of literary technique irrelevant. As if, suddenly, tales could no longer be ‘told’ but had to be ‘shown’ (as movies are); that fiction writers must cease being story ‘tellers’ and become instead story ‘showers’ (or ‘show-ers’, if such a word exists).
Perhaps the prescription/proscription/dogma reflects an apprehension that, since we have, allegedly, become a visual not a word-based culture, literary forms can only remain relevant by aping the techniques of the usurping medium, film. For an example of a new technology literally usurping a traditional art form we need only look at the way, during the nineteenth century, photography gradually took over the age-old role of painters and sculptors in producing images of the real world. But these were both visual media, so the eclipse is total. But the infinitely more nuanced relationship between an image-based medium like film and a word-based one, like written fiction cannot be reduced to the binary command, ‘show don’t tell’.
But what exactly does ‘show don’t tell’ mean? Use the active not the passive voice? Hardly radical advice and hardly prompted by the advent of the cinema. More broadly, isn’t ‘showing’ only one of the many ways in which a story may be ‘told’?
And, in any case, is ‘show don’t tell’ what screen writers actually do? Up to a point, Lord Copper. But the point is not a fixed one. Some, perhaps many, action blockbusters proceed largely by showing what’s happening on the screen. Conveying a character’s inward thoughts or motivations is, however, a different matter. And we must have all noticed how filmed dramas have taken to developing plot and character by displaying the text of emails, messaging or on-line chat on the screen? Is that ‘showing’ or ‘telling’? The technique was used extensively in, for example, Netflix’ ‘Sex Education’ and BBC’s ‘Line of Duty’ series.
There are, of course, proper opportunities for writers keen to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ their stories, – film scripts, obviously, and graphic novels. Then there’s writing for the theatre, which may be taken as a halfway house between literary fiction and the cinema. Same thing here. Shakespeare, or the director, can, by expanding the stage direction ‘They fight’, ‘show’ the murderous duel between Mercutio and Tybalt. But the fatally wounded Mercutio can only ‘tell’ the audience, theatre, cinema or TV, what he is feeling and thinking as he lies dying:
Courage, man. The hurt cannot be much.
No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door. But ’tis enough. ‘Twill serve Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague ‘a both your houses!
At heart it is, for me, a conundrum. Film-makers, or painters, ‘show’ images by a combination of shapes and colours, moving or still. I don’t know how similar images can be conveyed in words without the writer ‘telling’ us what the images look like.
To find out what happens not in Creative Writing classes or in writers’ groups but in the real world, the fiction publishing market place, let’s dip into the two novels I have read most recently.
Elly Griffiths’ ‘Sunday Times’ #1 Bestseller, ‘The Locked Room’ (2022) is the fourteenth in the series featuring Dr Ruth Galloway, the crime-solving archaeologist. The author can ‘show’ Ruth interacting with DI Nelson, the father of her daughter, Kate. She can paint a word picture of Ruth’s tiny cottage, isolated on the edge of the liminal saltmarsh, crouching beneath the vast east Anglian skies. Whether that’s ‘showing’ the picture or ‘telling’ the reader what it looks like I can’t decide. But it is by ‘telling’ that we enter into Ruth’s mind – her troubled conscience over her continuing relationship with the married policeman and why, as a single mother with a young daughter, she insists on living in such a lonely, vulnerable and, potentially, threatening spot.
And in his 2015 ‘Un Cirque Passe’/’After the Circus’, Patrick Modiano (Nobel Prize for Literature 2014) ditches ‘show’ completely. But then it’s difficult not to if your story is ‘told’ in the first person. The eighteen year old narrator ‘tells’ everything: from his first encounter with the enigmatic, twenty-two year old, Gisele, through their wanderings among the streets and squares of Paris, to their involvement with a group of characters as shady as they are seedy, all the way to the tragic and shocking denouement. Until the denouement everything is, as always in Modiano’s world, shadowy, mysterious, provisional. And all of it, characters, plot, place and atmosphere is conveyed by the narrator’s voice ‘telling’ the reader his own, uncertain, understanding of what happened, when, where and how.
The modernist architect Le Corbusier defined art as ‘what reaches my heart’. Worth bearing in mind when we are commanded that the way to a reader’s heart is through a perniciously simplistic dogma. Like all dogma ‘show don’t tell’ is secure in its conceit until life insists on breaking through.
Showtime? Not in my book.