Saturday, August 27, 2005

Show, Don't Tell?

Every writer has heard the oft-repeated maxim, "Show, don't tell." Like so many other "rules" of writing, though, some people carry it to extremes. Recently, a backlash against the overuse of this phrase has begun among teachers of writing. James Patrick Kelly absolutely refuses to issue this advice, "Don't you believe it!" he says. His reasoning is that a short story is not a play. Readers expect to be inside at least one character's head, and we learn a lot about that character from the way he thinks about and comments on others. There's also the issue, he points out, of story length. A long scene that shows a character going over Niagra Falls in a barrel isn't necessary to show that he reckless.

In the same collection of essays, however, Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog, makes a point of emphasizing "show, don't tell." Schmidt's article is on seeing your stories in your head, and he specifically recommends casting them as a play, then translating them back into a short story. The examples he gives in his essay are quite convincing, and, it must be remembered, it is he who will be deciding whether or not to buy your stories.

So what do we do? We are presented with diametrically opposed instructions from two equally-luminous figures in the world of publishing. I think the answer, as in many things in life, is that you must strike a balance. Adding huge numbers of scenes that only serve to reveal aspects of your character's personality lacks the economy of words necessary to tell a good tale. On the other hand, I think far more beginnners make the mistake of too much "info-dump" than make the mistake of not using description effectively where it is called for. I think this is the reason the "show, don't tell" maxim is stressed so often. The answer is that we must use both "telling" and "showing," but the art (as opposed to the mechanics) of writing is knowing how much of each to include and when to include it. Unfortunately, many members of our critique circles are no more advanced in this regard than we are, so they smugly over-apply the "show, don't tell" dictum without giving thought to the alternatives.

The simple answer is that there are no "rules" in writing. If it were easy, anyone could do it. The "rules" serve to correct the most common mistakes, but just because the mistake (such as too much "telling") is common doesn't automatically mean you've made it. On the other hand, I don't think we should let this license to "break the rules" blind us to the fact that we may in fact have may this very mistake! Thinking critically and objectively about our own work is, I believe, one of the most critical -- and difficult -- skills we can develop as writers.

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