Show; don’t tell … or maybe not

One of the most common maxims doled out to new writers (like me) is the tried, true and worn dictum, “Show; don’t tell.”  Personally, I don’t care much for it.

In its defense, it has a lot in its favor.  It’s used to warn new writers not to simply tell the reader that a certain character or place or event is what it is, but rather show the reader through events or comments by other characters that illuminate the specific character’s (or place’s or event’s) personality.  For example, suppose I invent a character whom I want to be a miser.  Instead of telling you, “he’s a miser,” I might show him hiding money in his mattress, or tipping a waiter a dime instead of a dollar, or some other activity common to misers.  It works well that way.

My argument with “show; don’t tell” is not that it doesn’t work, or that it gives bad advice, but that it uses conflicting terminology.  I maintain that to write a story, I, as author, have to tell the story.  No matter what I do, I’m telling something.  Writing is all about telling.  If I show you a character hiding money in a mattress, I may not be telling you he’s a miser, but I am telling you that he hid money in a mattress.  Telling a story is, just that: telling a story.  I can’t get away from it.  Neither can you.  At some point in a story, I have to tell you something.  In fact, a story is all about telling.  Telling, telling, telling, that’s what we writers do.  And it confused the heck out of me when I first heard it.  How, I wondered, do you tell a story without telling something? 

Robert Louis Stevenson, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, doesn’t simply state that “Edward Hyde is a murderer,” he relates it in detail, described from the point of view of a maid who watches it from a second-story window, and how she recognized the murderer because Hyde had once visited her employer and she took an instant dislike to him.  This incident is a vitally important part of the novel.  Yet, it could be argued that Stevenson told us this incident.  He had to tell something.  How to reconcile the quandary?

Then I found out.

I don’t know who first said it, but I prefer the dictum, “Never tell the reader what to think.”  Notice the word “tell” in there.  I’ve tried to find out where I first heard or read it, but I haven’t been unable to.  Probably in a magazine somewhere back in the mists of my early years as a writer.  This, to me, expresses the basic tenet I’ve tried to go by when putting words on paper (or computer screen).  Readers are more intelligent than we often give them credit for.  Readers can figure it out for themselves, and telling them bluntly that so-and-so is a miser or a murderer becomes an insult to their intelligence.  Readers like to be involved with the plot.  If someone stuffs money in a mattress, or tips poorly, or steers clear of banks, or leaves nothing in his will to his heirs, well, the reader understands this is a miserly person.  It may not pop up in his head “Oh, hey, this guy’s a real miser!” but it will get the point across without insulting his intelligence.

Wording it this way may not be for everyone (“Show; don’t tell” will be around for a long time) but it works for me.

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