I read with interest all the comments today on showing vs telling. It’s not quite midnight yet, so I haven’t chosen a winner, but there are a couple of standouts. I’ll decide tomorrow who the winner is.
In the meantime, I have another observation to make. Good, commercial writers do a LOT more showing than telling. By “commercial writers” I mean “writers who sell a lot of books but who are NOT literary novelists.”
Novices typically do a LOT more telling than showing. The reason so many writing teachers hammer on that “show don’t tell” thing is because this is the quickest way to get novice writers to improve their craft enough to get published.
However, there is another class of writers who do a lot of telling. Literary novelists. Some of these folks seem to tell way more than they show.
And yet it works. Literary fiction tends to pack a lot more “stuff” into the same number of words. But literary fiction also tends to move slower. So there’s a tradeoff.
I’m reminded of the novel MY NAME IS ASHER LEV by Chaim Potok. This is one of my favorite books. In the story, Asher Lev is a young Hasidic Jew who wants to be a painter. His rebbe hooks him up with a world-class mentor, Jacob Kahn, who of course paints and sculpts abstract art.
But when Kahn begins training young Asher, he doesn’t let him begin with abstract art. He forces him to learn the traditions of art — which means painting representational pictures first. Asher has to master all that before he starts doing abstract art. Asher, in fact, has to paint nudes — much to the fury of his papa.
I think there’s a strong analogy here to writing. When we start writing fiction, we need to first master the traditions of our craft. And that means learning how to show the scene. If we want to progress to literary fiction, then we may well end up doing a lot of telling.
I think the key point is that you have to know the rules before you can break them. Dali had to know how to paint a flat clock before he could paint one all droopy.
Randy, the point you make about knowing the rules before you can break them is underpins the difference between a lucky amatuer and a dedicated professional.
One slaps things together and hope’s enough sticks to be recognizable, while the other has learnt the needed techniques that will produce a particular result.
But we also need to remember that every technique relied on today was once new and untried.
Laura Ware says
I have to agree that you have to know the rules to know when and how you can break them.
And yes, people create groundbreaking techniques every day. But how do you know if yours is groundbreaking or already tried? 🙂
(Sorry if this post seems weird – haven’t had coffee yet)
Deb Ratcliffe says
Aren’t we just modifying a standard technique when we write something that appears unique?
By the way, are there any other Australians on this blog?
Rachel Brown says
That’s kinda funny … if you don’t follow the rules you’re either a novice or a literary novelist. Never thought of myself as a literary writer before …
(Yeah, right! So I’m just a novice trying to learn the rules … )
(G’day from another Aussie)
Andra M. says
I like the analogy of the painter, and heartily agree we need to know the “rules” before we attempt to break them. The only downside to that is there are so many, and depending upon who we talk to or read from, they often contradict each other.
It’s frustrating, but at the same time much can be learned from studying all points of view. It’s easier (though not necessarily quicker) to discover our own voice that way. We then have much more of those rules to pick and choose from, and in turn apply to our writing.
Better to have too many tools at our disposal than not enough.
What if Dali attempted to paint a flat clock and the droopy ones were just his failed attempts? Can inspiration sometimes be misunderstood or salvaged failures?
Marian Clough says
I have to agree with you about learning the basics and then going from there with whatever creativity is in you. I do that with all of the art forms that I’m involved in even though my REAL inclination is to ‘wing it’. It must be the rebel in me.
Holly H. says
I’m not sure I agree with what you said about “the basics”–in the analogy, the painter had to learn the traditions of art first. Well, our traditions in books are for the most part literary–I see the new forms as more akin to the rule-breaking abstracts than the literary traditions that came first! (Many of which broke every conceivable modern rule but still worked!)
I view studying at the feet of the masters (reading great art) as my apprenticeship – and learning from them is where I can make some sense about not rules per se, but acceptable and workable forms.
…the ramblings of a literary science-fiction novice…
I know the time limit is up but I still wanted to comment on your show-don’t-tell. I believe the theory behind learning to show first rather than tell is based in learning to paint word pictures. When you learn how to use words to paint a picture then you have more skill in using the words. The theory is also seen among many popular muscians who have studied classical music but play contemporary music – they learned the basics, the why’s and how’s, and then they took those rules and twisted them, shaped them and even broke them in creative ways. I write a weekly educational column for the newspaper and often the sixth-grade students I teach everyday come to me with a column and ask something like, “Why can you begin a sentence with ‘And’ but we can’t?” That’s when I get to teach them about the how’s and why’s and style and voice. And believe it or not, they get it!
Karla Akins says
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us…I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” –Ecclesiastes 1:9-14
The thing about any sort of fiction writing is that is should be accessible. Not so obscure that a reasonable reader has to wade through a paragraph three times and still not be sure what the writer is trying to say. So if you show or tell, if you write lit fic or pop fic a reader needs to be able to read and make sense of it.
(Hiya Rachel and Deb, from Darwin, NT)
I think that,after I have done both, then I will decide which was the rule and which was the one broken.