Show, Don’t Tell

There’s an interesting discussion here of the oft-quoted rule for writers ‘show, don’t tell’. It means, for example, don’t write ‘Emma felt sad’, write something like ‘Emma’s lip trembled. She raised one hand to the tears that had begun trickling down her cheek’. Why is that a good way of doing things? First, it may be more vivid and engaging. Second it guards against a fault of poor writing in which emotions are simply pasted on like labels, characters being assigned feelings without the writerly groundwork being done.However, to treat it as an absolute rule goes much too far, as with over-zealous application of rules like ‘no adverbs’ and ‘no passive mood’. Nothing is totally forbidden when you’re writing, and direct description of thoughts and emotions can be very valuable. Take this passage from Jane Austen’s Emma.

Emma’s eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched—she admitted—she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!

Emma’s realisation that she has loved Knightley all along is brilliantly done, the turning point of the novel and I think, one of the great moments in English literature. How could it be done by just ‘showing’? What outward behaviour on Emma’s part would convey the same thing? I doubt it could be done at all, and if it were it would surely be long-winded, vague, clumsy, and give none of the pleasure the actual text delivers.

Austen, like most great writers, often does some telling. Indeed, if she didn’t she could scarcely have pioneered the use of ‘free indirect’ style, the last great achievement of nineteenth century literature, in which the characters thoughts are voiced by the author. For example, the last sentence in the passage above could just have been ‘Mr Knightley must marry no-one but herself’ (I’m not suggesting that would have been an improvement.)

I would in general say to people who want to advise writers – show us things we can do, don’t tell us about things we mustn’t!


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