Show Us The Theme


There is one part of every story that must be shown rather than told: The theme. If the theme is something that can be told better than it can be shown, then what you’re looking at isn’t a story.

Why do we write stories rather than essays? Writing a story is harder and takes longer. But a story can do some things better than an essay can. The civil rights and gay rights movements didn’t succeed using logical arguments, but with fictional and true stories about black and gay individuals. A story can bring you into someone’s world, make them a non-stranger to you, and suddenly you find your attitude towards them has changed, without an argument. A story can explain someone’s behavior in terms of their previous experiences, and we may understand them better by imagining how we would respond to those same experiences than by following a chain of logic in a psychology journal.

This may be due to the peculiarities of the human mind. We’ve evolved to understand other humans, not essays. We can comprehend a person who is a mass of contradictions better than we can comprehend an essay that dissects the epistemology of a tangled philosophy. Stories are our native language, and we may perceive things in them more easily than if they were stated formally.

(More easily, not more reliably. Stories are a dangerous methodology for discovering truth. This, again, is due to the peculiarities of the human mind. Certain things only “make sense” as stories because they trigger context-insensitive emotional responses that short-circuit logical thought. So storytelling is a double-edged sword: It can convey truths that can be perceived only in a story, and lies that are convincing only in a story, and it’s difficult to know which you are doing at any given time.)

This is the true root of show versus tell. A story, fundamentally, shows. An essay tells.

Neither stories nor essays are mere communication. They’re creative. Communication passes on chunks of information. Creativity takes chunks of information and assembles them in new ways. If a story doesn’t give us any new or interesting combinations of old familiar chunks, we get the uneasy feeling that it wasn’t really a story, and it wasn’t.

“Showing” means, I think, that we can picture the assembly of those chunks in the real world and mentally simulate what they’ll do. “Telling” means we are given the chunks, and a sentence or formula to plug them into.

That is far from meaning that body language is “showing” while adverbs are “telling”. The chunks that we assemble may be entire chapters of a novel. I previously mentioned something in a previous post about Showing and Telling that has to do with “implication outside the initial scope”, quoting that post for the relevant bit:

There is a technique where you baldly state how a character feels or what a character thinks about something, and that statement can imply things far beyond the scope of what you wrote. If you’ve ever read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” you might remember how the style is very simplistic, with Christopher telling the reader all sorts of things that other writers might try to show instead, like the things that makes him happy, or his favorite foods, or what might make him sad. The thing is, telling here is not an error, because what the writer was trying to portray subtly is not Christopher’s emotions or his interests. The thing the writer was trying to infer here was Christopher’s simplemindedness, and the relationship he has with other people.

You are told many chunks of facts about Christopher. These chunks describe events or pictures in the world. You assemble them in your model of the world, and you see a bigger picture of Christopher emerge. That’s showing, but on a higher level of abstraction than that of body language or adverbs.

A good essay uses showing to give examples of its points, and a good story may use telling to build its chunks (as in the above example). So what’s the difference between a story and an essay?

If the top-level creative concept is shown, it’s a story. If the top-level creative concept is told, it’s an essay.

The story of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov is almost entirely “telling” dialogue. Christ returns a second time to earth, and is immediately jailed by the Catholic Church. The Grand Inquisitor explains to Christ why they must kill him, and his reasons sound convincing.

If the story ended there, it would be an essay. But it goes on for one more paragraph:

When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more… come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”

The kiss is Christ’s response to everything the Inquisitor has said. We feel that Christ has won the debate, and yet no one can tell why. There is no shorter way to explain the story than the story itself, and that is what proves it is a story.

The key distinction is whether the story leading up to the twist just plants clues about a fact that is to be revealed, or plants clues about the causes and consequences of what is to be revealed, which the reader can assemble into a theme. The latter is a story; the former is a story essay.


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