Luckily, Inquisitor M has stepped up to the plate! You may have seen him contribute guest columns before, and now he's got his own take on one of the most misunderstood, most discussed, and most debated subjects in ponyfiction: show vs. tell. Click down below the break for his perspective.
Oh, and a word of advice: even if you're sick to death of talking about show vs. tell, you should give this a gander; I think Mr. M's come up with a unique take on the subject, no small feat given how frequently it's talked about.
Show versus tell can hardly be discussed too much, but I think it’s important to bring something new to the table when possible, even if it’s only a perspective. So, for my part, I would like to focus on telling to see if examining that which is usually held up as anathema can offer us just such a perspective.
If I were to have something that passes as a special talent, it would be pattern recognition and complicated systems analysis. That’s pretty much why I harp on about philosophy at all, because it’s all about discovering the root of things, usually phrased as ‘the truth’. When there are exceptions to a rule, it often means the rule isn’t quite right. So it is, then, that I think of the ways in which telling can be perfectly fine, sometimes (if rarely) even optimal, and wonder what a better way of explaining the rule as we know it would be.
To cut to the chase: engagement. That’s what we’re talking about, and show versus tell is how we interact with that goal when we write prose. You show something happening and allow the reader to fill in the blanks, which helps the reader to be engaged. But does it mean that telling is fundamentally not engaging? No. No it does not. It only means that it isn’t engaging by nature, but when we do it right, telling can be just as engaging, possibly more so. Knowing how to do it, however, is trickier stuff.
So how can telling be engaging? Put simply, absolutely any time that it leads to an answer greater than the sum of its parts. Anytime the reader has to use the statement provided and work out how it relates to the story, and what implications it might hold, the reader is theoretically engaged. Done correctly, just one or two words can do more of the emotional heavy lifting than three paragraphs of powerful dialogue and description. So, telling can be a good thing, right?
Well, no, actually. And no, I’m not contradicting myself, either, because context matters. The same cluster of words could be telling in one context, and showing in another. This is because the common meaning of ‘showing’ is that you use visual cues to prompt a reader into making an assumption, which then achieves engagement. In this context, telling is bad because it leaves nothing for the reader to do. But what is it then, if telling actually causes the reader to do some mental or emotional gymnastics? Is it still telling? It may be that we have a clear distinction between the per-sentence implementation of saying a character is sad versus demonstrating that the character is sad, but I think that oversimplification loses some important nuance. For lack of a better term, I’m going to say that telling for effect is simply showing on the larger scale of plot.
As an example of this, I’m going to fall back on the rather polarising letter-format story. The vast majority of the prose in such letters is entirely telling (though not necessarily in the traditional sense). When done well, however, the telling is in fact showing us the larger plot across multiple letters/journals. It’s clearly showing, not telling, when you think about the way it builds a framework for the reader to fill in. When done poorly, it can be far worse than traditional narrative, but when done well it can be immensely compelling through tone (Yours Truly), voice (Letters From a Senior to a Junior Changeling), and mystery (Act of Will) [While I won't comment on my story's inclusion, the other two are both absolutely worth reading, if you're unfamiliar with either. -Chris].
If we roll with this interpretation, then we can pretty much say that telling is never really acceptable. We only have showing on three levels, by sentence, by plot, and by story. If it’s truly telling, then it isn’t engaging the reader, and it’s probably not the right way to present that particular detail. Thus, rather than the oversimplification that is show versus tell, perhaps the mantra of ‘how does this engage the reader’ might better serve to deepen the understanding of novice and journeyman alike.
For completeness, I’ll add that occasionally telling is simply efficient, skimming lesser details to hasten towards other forms of engagement. Mystic has a particularly good blog post on this usage; go check it out if you haven’t before.
You’ll note that I mentioned three levels, yet have only talked about two...
To be continued
-Scott ‘Inquisitor’ Mence
Dun dun DUN! Tune in Friday for the thrilling conclusion!