Monday, 20 January 2014

Monday Musings: Show and tell

It frustrates me sometimes that 'show, don't tell' still seems to be a staple of writing advice. While this is probably helpful for the absolute beginner, I can think of countless novels that deliberately tell rather than show to magnificent effect. The first that comes to mind is the brilliant The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, one of my favourite reads of 2012, which effortlessly mixes folktale with modern-day conflict in the Balkans. One of the things that makes this novel so wonderful is the way in which it appeals to our innate desire to be told a story. There is little dialogue or indeed any scenes as such in The Tiger's Wife; instead, our first-person narrator tells us stories of herself and of her grandfather that don't need to show us anything to be captivating. This is not a long novel, but many of my favourite long novels use 'telling' to similar effect; Sarah Waters, for example, writes fantastic dialogue and set-pieces, most notably in The Night Watch, but is equally capable in 'tell' mode in The Little Stranger.

Perhaps, however, it's unfair to use novels like this to disagree with 'show, don't tell'. Is this a piece of advice intended for lower-brow reads - whatever that means - or for writing for children or teenagers? Again, however, I'd have to disagree that this advice is always or even often relevant. Like 'never use the passive voice', another writing rule that frequently perplexes me, telling doesn't necessarily mean that you are writing lazily. Children's classics like Charlotte Sometimes, Tom's Midnight Garden and Marianne Dreams tell parts of their stories, and their long survival indicates their appeal to young readers. In contrast, more recent offerings sometimes take the 'show' injunction to extremes, leaving the reader perplexed by the world-building, like teenage hits Divergent and The Hunger Games (much as I guiltily enjoyed those two novels). Genre reads, too, can suffer from the problem. Everyone knows how much I love A Song of Ice and Fire, but A Dance With Dragons, the weakest so far in the series, was bogged down by endless 'showing.' Martin rarely tells the reader anything directly in Dance, but in earlier instalments he was willing to do so more often, leaving us to deduce the most important information in the novel rather than worrying over lengthy scenes between minor characters.

Telling is not something recommended to the beginning writer because it is difficult to do it well, and I can think of many novels that seem only to skim the surface of the story they are telling because their telling is not deep enough (Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie springs to mind.) However, the ease of spinning out pages of dialogue can also be deceptive, and knowing exactly what you want to 'show' in 'showing' scenes is harder than you might think. The worst offenders are scenes that try to avoid exposition by 'showing' through dialogue, when the facts they're trying to convey would have been much better told. I'm reminded of this classic piece of writing from Enid Blyton's Upper Fourth at Malory Towers, when Darrell Rivers and her sister Felicity are leaving for boarding school: 'Mr Rivers looked at them and smiled. "Both off this time!" he said. "Well, I remember quite well Darrell going off alone for the first time almost four years ago. She was twelve then - now you're fifteen, aren't you, Darrell!"' While few bits of modern dialogue are quite this bad, there's often a sense of the author's hand at work.

If telling-not-showing is bad, exposition is the worst variety of telling, especially expounding upon the backstory to your novel before the plot has really got going. And yet, although the risk of confusing and alienating one's reader is very real (I couldn't get through Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season because of the exposition) I still don't think that this rule is set in stone. One of my favourite fantasy novels of all time, Robin McKinley's Sunshine, spends more time on backstory than on story. In this case, I think it works because Sunshine's voice is so convincing and because McKinley knows exactly what she is doing (her earlier novels are also examples of how to tell well - Rose Daughter is my favourite, but it faces fierce competition from Deerskin and Beauty.) But this is also a matter of personal taste (I'm very fond of parentheses, for example, but I know some readers are not.)

One might come to the easy conclusion that 'rules are made to be broken.' But then how much can an author demand of a reader without losing their attention? I'm going to think about that next Monday.

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