Tell, Don’t Show

July 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

Here are three passages of shameless telling (not showing) in great stories:

From Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

But perhaps the enthusiastic sensibility of young women of her age also played a role. This feeling sought release at every opportunity, and with it Grete now felt tempted to want to make Gregor’s situation even more terrifying, so that then she would be able to do even more for him than she had up to now. For surely no one except Grete would ever trust themselves to enter a room in which Gregor ruled the empty walls all by himself.

This is telling, since it’s a direct explanation of Grete’s reasoning and feelings. Or maybe it’s showing, because it conveys (without spelling out) how self-concern moves the world and characters around Gregor.

From Chekhov’s The Lady With the Little Dog:

Not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love. And only now when his head was grey he had fallen properly, really in love — for the first time in his life.

This is telling because it spells out not just the protagonist’s feelings, but the central emotional development of the whole story — that he is truly in love for the first time. Or maybe it’s showing, because it demonstrates how significant developments can happen internally, as mere matter-of-fact thoughts. And plain unadorned shifts of mood and matter are the implicit substance of Chekhov’s storytelling.

From Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

Exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.

This is telling, since it’s a direct emotional explanation. Even worse, it’s Flaubert chiming in with his own sentiment instead of letting his characters speak for themselves. Or perhaps it’s showing, because this line of thought buttresses the central theme of the book: the disparity between feeling and real-life expression of it.

So “Show Don’t Tell” doesn’t pan out in real life. Rather, it doesn’t pan out in real writing.

Actually, “Show Don’t Tell” itself isn’t my point. My point is that every creative rule falls to tatters in the face of a real, truly great piece of writing. “Show Don’t Tell” and the like may be useful for amateurs looking to winnow down the form’s open-endedness. But they’re irrelevant to real reading or writing, whose rules are no more or less than the dictates and implications of the writer’s particular style and sensibility.

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