“Show, don’t tell” is such ubiquitous advice, repeated so often so often in conference halls, writing guidebooks and classrooms, that I’d imagine most creative writing teachers would save themselves a lot of time by owning the phrase emblazoned on a stamp (don’t bother Googling; I’ve already checked and no such object exists). There’s even a short story published in the New Yorker titled “Show Don’t Tell.” But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to tell. In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell cautions not to take the advice too literally, writing that “Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” I’d imagine the idea’s been around as long as we’ve been on Earth telling stories, though the phrasing is often attributed to Chekhov:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass
The idea is that one allows the reader to see, hear, taste, smell, feel and experience a scene in a more immersive way than getting hit with an info dump. That draws attention away from the fact that it’s a work of fiction and makes the story come to life, and there’s the key: telling is okay only insofar as it doesn’t break the illusion. I want to examine two authors telling and not showing in interesting ways. One writer pulls it off. For the other, I believe, the tactic backfires.
Telling as a Plot Device
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica may just be the best-researched novel ever written. Every page drips with details large and small, insider lingo and scientific accuracy (too much for some reviewers). Clearly he knows his subject matter. In fact, Robinson traveled to Antarctica as part of the NSF’s Artists and Writers Program, which, yes, is a real thing. In his story, shortly after landing at McMurdo research station in Antarcitca, one of his characters gets a call from his boss, who wants to know what it’s like down there. “Just tell me what you see, Wade,” he says. “You’re my eyes.” Wade responds:
Well, I’m walking by the Crary Lab now. It’s quite small, composed of three small buildings on a slope, with a passageway connecting them. There’s a street sign saying I’m on Beeker Street, but it’s not much of a street. There are a lot of pipelines right on the ground… Now I’m passing a building like a giant yellow cube, with a bunch of antennas on the roof. Must be the radio building. Now I’m passing a little chapel… Now I’m on a road going out to the docks. Right now the docks are empty, because the bay is iced over.
Oh, you clever writer person you! I bet there’s a little sticky note saying “show, don’t tell” on the corner of his laptop screen. He found a way to sneak an infodump into his story… but, come on. It’s still an infodump. For me, this passage exposed the wiring and gears behind the metaphorical curtain. The phone call is such an obviously convenient literary device that it draws attention to the fact that we’re reading a work of fiction and in doing so breaks the immersion, like seeing a cameraman’s reflection in a movie.
Telling to Advance the Plot
Raymond Chandler had a similar dilemma in his gritty noir novel Farewell, My Lovely, but he tackles it much more skillfully. His detective, Philip Marlowe, has just been jumped by assailants. He doesn’t see them coming. They smack him on the back of the head and he’s out. A little later, he regains consciousness. Here’s how chapter ten opens (edited lightly for space):
“Four minutes,” the voice said. “Five, possibly six. They must have moved quick and quiet. He didn’t even let out a yell.”
I opened my eyes and looked fuzzily at a cold star. I was lying on my back. I felt sick.
“Then one of them got into the car,” the voice said, “and waited for you to come back. The others hid again. They must have figured he would be afraid to come alone. Or something in his voice made them suspicious when they talked on the phone.”
I balanced myself woozily on the flat of my hands, listening.
“Yeah, that was about how it was,” the voice said.
It was my voice. I was talking to myself, coming out of it. I was trying to figure the thing out subconsciously.
“Shut up, you dimwit,” I said, and stopped talking to myself.
Now that is an inventive literary device. Both writers break the same rule for the same purpose, but Chandler finds a way to keep the immersion intact. He remains faithful to the spirit of “show, don’t tell.” Robinson’s clunky approach strikes me as nothing more than a plot device, whereas Chandler’s deft handling works to advance the story even during a lull in the action.