Thought: Showing vs. Telling

“Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. (I make them read the first chapter of The Return of the Native, a description of a landscape, in which absolutely nothing happens until in the last paragraph a man is seen, from far away, walking along a road. If that won’t cure them nothing will.)

“This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present. They believe the narrator’s voice (ponderously described as “omniscient”) distances the story — whereas it’s the most intimate voice of all, the one that tells you what is in the characters’ hearts, and in yours. The same fear of “distancing” leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment….”–Ursula K. Le Guin, “On Rules of Writing, or, Riffing on Rechy”.

The ‘showing vs telling’ aspect is probably THE first writing technique you encounter when embarking on a writing journey. Writing platforms, discussion forums and blogs are full of critical feedback on writers telling too much. Their argument: it is impossible to relate with characters and the scene they are acting in.

First chapters, especially, are supposed to be action-loaded. Yet, many critically acclaimed works include the loathed ‘telling.’ I wonder why present-day aspiring writers are so afraid of the terrible t-word. (And yes, I’m aware of the fact that already established authors don’t have to ‘deliver’ to such a degree as unknown writers do.)

In a forum, one user blamed it on modern times and modern readers who simply don’t have the energy and time for books that delve too much into exposition.

Is this true?

Do writers need to adapt their storytelling to today’s lifestyle of being constantly on the go, storytelling that resembles more the style of an action-loaded movie?

Or are we missing the opportunity to craft a finely balanced tale by relying too much on showing?

To be honest, I’m torn. As a relatively new writer, I’m probably quite intimidated by the contemporary rule of ‘show, show, show!!’ And still, why not display a little attitude and go back to the roots of literary classics like Le Guin’s The Return of the Native example, and willingly and knowingly include well-crafted telling in our narratives?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: