Sometimes “Show Don’t Tell” is BS

My third book, Descending, has been out at some publishers. I got a rejection on one partial a while back, and it had a little feedback attached. I don’t often get feedback from anyone, so I was excited at first.

Until I read it.

Don’t get me wrong; there was a point of useful information that I am taking into consideration, and I may make adjustments to the opening chapter. It’s an easy fix that requires little more than a couple extra sentences. My biggest problem with this feedback is that it was beating that favorite literary horse of the month, Show Don’t Tell.

Maybe I should write picture books.  So easy to show with pictures.  This is my view at the end of the trail I bike.

Maybe I should write picture books. So easy to show with pictures. This is my view at the end of the trail I bike.

You can’t participate in any literary group without hearing that phrase bandied about. It’s right up there with “Adjectives are the Devil.” In case you are unclear on the meaning of the phrase, here’s an example:

“The rabid wombat slunk closer. Jayne was worried that it would soon attack.”

“The rabid wombat slunk closer. Jayne could feel the hairs lifting on the back of his neck. The muscles in his legs tightened, as if his body was ready to run as soon as his mind made the decision to do so. A growl from the beast made him flinch, and he sputtered out a breath he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding.”

In the first example, I, the writer, am telling you that Jayne is worried. In the second, I’m describing what that worry looks and feels like—I’m showing it to you.

My Bike

I could tell you about how cool and awesome my new bike is, or I could just show you this picture.

In many, many cases, the second example if far superior to the first. The writer is really allowing the reader to get involved and experience what is going on. In Descending, I use that showing often, because it’s very close third person POV. I want the reader to be in the narrator’s head. However, I don’t always show rather than tell. I know it’s sacrilegious in these “Show Don’t Tell” times, but there are cases where I believe tell is a better choice.

Such as in fast pace action scenes, say for example, a plane crash.

Descending opens with a plane crash, and then goes straight into what the characters need to immediately do to survive. In the first chapter, we see how our heroine deals with the crash and the aftermath, and we also see what she thinks of the coworkers that she’s flying with. It’s deep POV. This isn’t exactly how her coworkers truly are, it’s her opinion of them. As we find later in the book, some of her opinions are wrong. But we’re in her head, so at the start of the book, we don’t know this.

Think Harry Potter, which is almost completely written from Harry’s point of view. In this POV, Professor Snape is shown as a completely horrible being, because Harry thinks he is. As we read through the series, Snape has actions that are in conflict with this view, because Harry’s view of him isn’t an objective view. Our opinion of Snape is colored by Harry’s opinion.

In this blog, you are in my head, where my sweetie is the cutest and smoked chickens are delicious.

In this blog, you are in my head, where my sweetie is the cutest and smoked chickens are delicious.

It’s the same as in the beginning of my book, though I’m not pretending that I do it as effectively as JKR. I can’t have the cast of characters show their foibles, because they don’t all have them. It’s just my MC’s opinion of them. It’s meant to get the reader inside her head.

And you know where I think show vs tell has the least effect? During high-paced action scenes. For those that think every single line of a book should be show and not tell, take a look at some of the classics.

“Can’t sell his head? — What sort of a bamboozingly story is this you are telling me?” getting into a towering rage. “Do you pretend to say, landlord, that this harpooneer is actually engaged this blessed Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, in peddling his head around this town?”

That’s from Moby-Dick. I suppose that today Mr. Melville would be chastised for not giving us lengthy prose describing that towering rage, but his telling us about it isn’t hurting his tale in the least.

Yes, showing instead of telling can be a very useful tool to improve the quality of your writing. However, like most such rules, there is a time and a place for it. In my opinion, the middle of a plane crash is not the time to wax poetic.

I took this picture while I was riding my bike.  I didn't have time to adjust focus and shutter speed because of all the riding.

I took this picture while I was riding my bike. I didn’t have time to adjust focus and shutter speed because of all the riding.

It took me time to decide not to change the telling that I have in my first chapter. My first impulse was that all my writing sucks and I must immediately re-write the entire book! (Word of advice—never make sweeping changes based on one reader’s opinion.  Also, this initial reaction to crit is normal.  Breathe, it will pass.) Luckily for me, I have learned to step back for a period of time before changing things based on crit received. I came to the conclusion that it would bog down the pace and bore the reader in this specific instance. At the least, I want to hear from a critter who has read more than a couple chapters before making sweeping changes. It did not help that the critter in this case gave me an example that was not true to life, which made me distrustful of the advice given.

MC thinks another character drinks too much. This proves not to be the case later in the story. That character has no difficulty being away from alcohol. Critter suggested that rather than have the narrator think this, the character should pull a flask out of his pocket. On an airplane. In America. Where airlines allow no liquids to be carried on, not even a bottle of water, let alone a flask of flammable liquid. Nope. I’m not making that change. I’ll lose the line about the MC thinking he drinks too much before I will put something so unrealistic into my story.

As is the general rule, critters often can tell you what’s wrong with a story, but they rarely know how to fix it.

In conclusion, yes, for the most part showing is better than telling based on current literary style. However, keep in mind that there is a time and place for both, and flasks have no business on airplanes.

Neither do duckies

Neither do duckies

About JulianneQJohnson

I am a writer in Indiana who lives with two cats, two ferrets, and one fiance. I enjoy cheap coffee and expensive chocolate.
This entry was posted in Bad Writing Advice, Habits in writing, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Advice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Sometimes “Show Don’t Tell” is BS

  1. Robert S. Eilers says:

    I was at a workshop a couple weeks ago in which the presenter, Stephen Leigh, an accomplished writer since the 1970s, also set the best time to tell not show is during a fast paced sequence because you don’t want to bog down the action.

  2. Kylie Betzner says:

    Agreed. I just blogged on this recently. haha. Sometimes, it is okay to tell. George R. R. Martin does a lot of telling, and to be honest, it does not upset me.

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