If you hang around writing blogs long enough, you’ll inevitably come across the advice of “show, don’t tell.” The degree to which this advice is emphasized can vary, everything from “don’t tell me the moon is full, show me the moonlight glittering on broken glass” advice to punch up descriptions, to “real writers don’t tell you a story, they show you the story” (AKA telling is bad, mkay?).
I just had a brush with a story that is all show and no tell, and I am here to tell you that that mode of storytelling, as a general rule, does not work.
This was a film I screened for the local festival. I can’t talk specifics about it, but it was a broken narrative (a la Memento) and trying to be a stripped-down story of the type the literati claim to love. The film was beautiful, but ultimately boring, because without any “tell” to give me a bit of backstory or information on the characters, I simply didn’t care. I didn’t care about their mortal danger, I didn’t know why they were doing what they were doing and didn’t care enough about them to try and flesh them out vis a vis my own imagination…I simply didn’t care. By the point in the film when they did finally show some of the backstory, I felt it was too little, too late–had I come across the film on TV, I’d have given it the 20-minute chance for being beautiful to look at and then changed the channel long before we got to the exposition, because I had nothing to hang onto, character or emotion-wise. So I would never even have reached the point of understanding that might have enabled me to care about what was happening.
That is ultimately the problem with all show: the lack of tell leaves the reader without the tools they need to engage with the story. You simply cannot show every relevant piece of backstory to explain why a certain event is going to matter to a character. (Actually, I take that back: The Lies of Locke Lamora does that brilliantly, but I would not want every story to be told that way.) You can’t show us enough facets of a character quickly enough to make us care enough to keep reading and get the story going quickly enough to keep us reading. You can have one or the other–invest us in the character at the expense of a headlong rush into the story, or rush us into the story and tell us a bit about the character.
I’m not saying you have to overwhelm the showing of the story with the telling of the character…but if you present no telling and no frame of reference, the ADD reader will be hard-pressed to give enough of a damn to keep going. This is why I struggle with Cormac McCarthy despite recognizing his genius as a writer–I have to reach the end of the book before I have been shown enough to care about the chracters and everything that just happened to them. I have to force myself through to reach the end; the reading is not pleasurable, even if the contemplation of the reading afterward is.
If that’s the style you are aiming for, fine–but I think the advice is suspect for most writers, because most writers want to entertain their audience, and most readers want to be entertained. Readers don’t mind some tell, especially if the telling allows us to connect sooner with the characters or the story. For me, stories that are all show just don’t hold my attention, and so however brilliant they may be by the end…I’m not going to keep reading to find that out for myself.
And if the goal of a writer is to be read, that means they failed.