Showing vs Telling. Again.


To say that I’ve blogged before about the differences between showing and telling would be an understatement. Some of them are more complete than others, I have two full posts dedicated to showing, and there is a twopart post that talks about Francine Prose’s excellent book, Reading Like a Writer.

I’m making another one because the advice I see most often is “show, don’t tell” and I really think the advice could be confusing to anyone who is looking to get into writing but doesn’t have a whole lot of experience yet. I don’t disagree with the statement, I just think anytime it is brought it should be immediately followed by an asterisk.

You shouldn’t tell:

– the reader what to feel

– the reader what to think

Take this bit of story:

Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot…But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did NOT!

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!

Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

If this were a story in a literary magazine about how the Grinch sees through the shallow hypocrisy of Christmas, as epitomized by plastic Christmas decorations, then this would be bad telling. The author would want us to feel as the Grinch feels about Christmas. He should refrain from just straight telling us that the Grinch hates Christmas, and instead show people applying mindless crass consumerism as a band-aid for human suffering.

But if the Grinch’s hatred of Christmas is a plot element rather than an emotion the reader is supposed to feel, then it’s okay to just say it. In fact, if it is important for the reader to feel differently than the Grinch does on the subject, you probably shouldn’t “show” here!

So you can’t take a quote in isolation and criticize it for telling instead of showing. You can identify it as telling, but whether that telling is acceptable or not depends on the context.