Friday, January 16, 2009

Is “Show Don’t Tell” a False Dichotomy?

All Showing Is Telling

I have never been philosophically comfortable with the writing dictum ,“Show, Don’t Tell.” ‘Showing’ and ‘telling’ do not comprise a true dichotomy. Logically it’s like the statement, “Be a man, don’t be human.”

Why is this so?

Consider the two statements below;

All men are humans but not all humans are men.

All showing is telling but not all telling is showing.

For example: I can write:

“John left the room angrily.“ This would be telling.

I can also write,

“John stomped out of the room slamming the door so hard the picture frames on the walls shook for thirty seconds afterwards.” This would be showing.

But how did I show it? I had to tell you what John did. I can’t show you anything without telling you something.

Do you see? While I don’t have to be showing anything, I always have to be telling something. Even as an author, if I write a full page objective description of a sunset that seems like pure ‘showing’, what I am actually doing is telling you what you would see if you were on the spot and could observe the event.

I have read passages where it would be very hard to say whether the author was showing or telling. Why does this happen? Because ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ do not comprise a true dichotomy.

Why is all this important? After all, “Show Don’t Tell” is just a harmless ‘rule of thumb’. It’s not a premise in a syllogism.

My problem with “Show Don’t Tell” is that it is an example of muddled thinking, (good intentioned ‘muddled thinking’), but ‘muddled thinking’ none the less.

The problem with muddled thinking is that it can hide a deeper truth. There is something more fundamental going on here. Discovering this underlying truth can lead to better writing or, at least, to better writing advice.

The deeper truth is : Your characters need to emote. It is essential that your reader feels, to the degree this is possible, what your character is feeling at that point in the story.

I don’t want to be told the character is angry. I don’t want to be shown the character is angry. I want to vicarious feel the character's anger. I don’t really care how the author achieves this. You can show, you can tell, you can do any combination of either, but I want to "feel" the story.

I hope this gives you something to think about.

"Don't Tell, Don't Show, Emote!"

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