Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Infamously Impossible Rule

Show, don't tell.

Okay.... wait, what?

Just wondering, who wasn't confused when they first heard this 'unbreakable' rule? I mean, there I was, probably in fourth grade, thinking that from that moment on, every single paper I wrote had to be illustrated. After the teacher explained, I was still confused. When I got to sixth grade, 'show don't tell' was kids' stuff. I knew it, I understood it, I had mastered it like double digit addition.

But every once in awhile, when I stop to really think about it, I look at that rule and scratch my head.

Firstly, I'll take my problem in the literal sense. Obviously, the only thing a writer can do is 'tell,' unless, like my fourth grade self thought, they illustrate. But that's just being nitpicky.

My other problem lies in the simple impossibility of the rule. If all we ever do is show, it gets boring. Pages and pages of description are hardly the best way to say, "It was a sunny day." I mean, really. Not that 'show, don't tell' always means showing with length, and sometimes a short 'show' really does add to the story. But surely telling has its place in literature too? I think I would get exhausted, reading a book that never told me anything. I mean, putting two and two together - furrowed eyebrows, hands in fists - can be better than the simple 'he was angry,' but sometimes the pace doesn't allow for that. I don't always need to know a particular character's way of showing he's angry, especially if he's not a main character.

Am I wrong on this? Is it just laziness that makes me think sometimes telling is better than showing? Or is it different with each writer?

I have no idea. What do you think?


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, I think it is different with each writer. I mean, whilst Hemingway whittled down, Thomas Wolfe embellished. And which one should be criticized? Wonderful ideas to ponder!

Jenita said...

I think "show don't tell" is one of those things that's taught the way it is in elementary school because it's simpler that way -- you know, the numerous things that we think we know, but then we get to middle school (and then, again, to high school) and have to relearn them? It's rather like one of those. The problem is, writing in schools is a matter of giving the teacher what they're looking for, so most of the time it's not about "right" or "good", if you can even have a universal standard for something like that. Show, don't tell is an easy way to get kids to stop writing "he was angry" and push themselves a little further, to try something new/different so they can learn to become better writers. Does that mean you have to show all the time? Does that mean that just the right "telling" phrase is still "wrong"? No. I don't think it's necessarily a universal rule, it's just an easy one.