As old as the hills is the distinction between narration and representation. Reviving Plato’s account of narration and representation, Percy Lubbock (an authority on Henry James’ novels and narrative innovations), started a new trend for writers of fiction: the technique of “show, don’t tell.”
Although Lubbock’s book The Craft of Fiction (1921) is seldom read today, the aphorism “show, don’t tell” remains unchallenged. But what was once fresh and new then has become in turn a new orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that has to be inspected and challenged regardless of the authority it exerts and the vast popularity and acceptance is has gained.
Contrary to what many writers think and practice, an abundance of dialogue and dramatized scenes doesn’t necessarily make for riveting writing. Thus, “show, don’t tell” has its limitations. Or even more than limitations, James Patrick Kelly, a popular writer of short stories says, “Show, don’t tell, can be a dangerous policy. Wordy writers think they must dramatize everything. But a story isn’t a game of charades; come out and tell readers what’s what.”
Francine Prose, in her invaluable book, Reading like a Writer (while commenting on Alice Munro’s style) says: “Finally, the passage contradicts a form of bad advice often given young writers–namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell. Needless to say, many great novelists combine ‘dramatic’ showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that, I guess, what is meant by telling (25).”
That ‘show, don’t tell’ is bad advice, I am sure. In the first place it hinders the writer’s spontaneous production. In the second place, it intrudes in the writer’s freedom to make aesthetic choices. Francine Prose goes on to say: “There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective that showing.” I agree. The greatest novels do not show–they tell. One of the greatest novel of the Nineteenth Century, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is vastly told. One Hundred Years of Solitude–perhaps one of the great novels of the Twentieth Century is told, almost in its entirety.
Novelists are ‘story tellers’–not actors, declaimers, performers, or playwrights. Anton Chekhov once said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” This catchy admonition has been taken by many critics as unswerving authority that reinforces the ‘show, don’t tell’ fad.
But it isn’t difficult to see that Chekhov meant that the writer in the descriptive parts of his telling should use sensory images. To write ‘the moon is shining’ is not only lazy writing but inartistic writing. It isn’t that Chekhov is arguing for dramatization, nor a visible performance, or much less heated dialogue. Not at all. Chekhov is arguing for the use of vivid imagery that can paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
If drama is needed for a particular scene, writers must choose their when to do it and in what proportion; if an item, a subject, or an object needs to be isolated or magnified, then the writer will feel the need for focusing on that particular thing. But to apply the “show don’t tell” command as if it was make up that would enhance the features of the narrative is downright insane.
The autonomy of the writer is imperiled when trends, fads, and the cliche ‘show, don’t tell’ dictate how to write.