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.