From 2 to 4 p.m. this Sat., Jan. 22, I'll be teaching a workshop at BookSmart in Morgan Hill, CA, titled Enough With Show, Don't Tell Already: What Does It Mean, Why is It Necessary, How Do We Do It?
I developed this workshop based on my desperate search for information that could deliver me from the hair-pulling purgatory of show, don't tell, one where I'd hand a novel segment to my seven-person critique group and in return get seven opinions ranging from "You don't show at all," to "You don't tell at all." How could one segment of writing excite such a disparity?
Clearly I was missing something. When I took a closer look at what that might be, the famous Elizabeth Barrett Browning How do I love thee? saying floated to mind like a sledgehammer, the personalized version being, How am I an idiot? Let me count the ways...
To save you from such confounding damnation, or at least limit your time there, I'm including a list of my ten epiphanies about why show, don't tell is hogwash that simply confuses writers and allows them to fall victim to bad critique advice.
Ten Reasons Why Show, Don't Tell is Hogwash
1. assumes way too much
Show, don't tell assumes writers know what show and tell mean.
2. offers no definition
Without a definition, writers — rightly and wrongly, though mostly wrongly — create their own definitions, which means they write what sounds good to them instead of dissecting their sentences to understand what words tell and which ones show. Writers may think they're showing, for example, when really they're telling, or vice versa. For our purposes, I'll define showing as the conveyance of factual information that could be confirmed by outside observers (i.e., The sun is out today.), while telling means giving readers an opinion, explanation or interpretation (i.e., I don't like sunny days.).
3. implies telling is bad
4. when telling is actually good
Telling is necessary to draw readers closer to the characters by conveying their biased thoughts.
5. allows stories to fall into that problem of too much of anything...
Without any telling, a story of all showing may leave readers confused about characters or feel the writing style is too sterile (how many people love all-showing virtuosoErnest Hemingway unconditionally?).
6. wallows in vaguenss
Once writers understand that some telling is important, show, don't tell is too vague to offer an idea of how much writers should show and how much they should tell
7. doesn't take into account the type of story you're writing
How much writers show or tell really depends on what kind of story they're writing and what their readers expect. Lovers of genre books expect a lot of telling, for example, while those who read literary novels prefer a lot less.
8. leaves writers vulnerable to bad critique advice
When working from such a vague rule, those critiquing our work may invariably offer opinions based on what they like, which if they don't read stories like yours are not worth much. This is also the reason we can get that huge difference of opinion regarding how much we should show and tell.
9. does not encourage writers to learn
Show, don't tell doesn't encourage writers to understand, study and practice showing and telling.
10. does not lead writers to master writing
Only when writers learn how to show and tell, and more importantly, learn when to do which, do they gain the control necessary for creating exactly the reaction they want readers to have.
The moral of the show and tell story is that until you thoroughly understand the concept of showing and telling and make conscious decisions about the purpose of each sentence (to show or tell?) will you be delivered from the Land Where Everyone Has an Opinion About Why Your Work Doesn't Show/Tell Enough But No One Has an Answer About How to Fix the Problem.
I'm a writing junkie looking for other writing junkies who are in this gig for the cool of it. People striving to be better writers because that's where their minds fly. I've accrued any number of writing credentials: author of "Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up: A Thorough Primer for the Writers of Fiction and Nonfiction"; writer of short stories published in Watchword, the Berkeley Fiction Review, Iconoclast and other literary journals; journalist of hundreds of articles for such publications as the Chicago Tribune and Inside Karate Magazine; playwright of a play produced in Hollywood. But what I'm looking to create now is a safe haven for writers where they can forget the brutality of the publishing world for awhile and help one another jump literature to a new level. If you're that person, or would like to be, welcome.