Show & Tell
SHOW & TELL
By Cody Goodfellow
Remember how utterly lame Halloween costumes used to be?
What kid-hating idiot in the 1960’s decided that kids had to be the Platonic ideal of a character, instead of a mimic of the real thing. that a kid who wanted to be the Wolf Man for Halloween really should instead become a billboard for the Wolf Man. Spider Man was supposed to go begging for candy in a rubber suit with a picture of himself on it. Perhaps because irritable cops kept shooting at anything remotely resembling Tatoo or Gene Simmons, we were forced to wear these retarded costumes that told who we were supposed to be, instead of elegantly showing what we were.
Show, don’t tell: an ironclad dictum, the kind of rule you must obey to produce bearable writing, but must break to produce anything enjoyable. For no better reason than that I love to donkey-punch conventional wisdom whenever I see its loathsome, helpless haircut, I tried to get to the heart of the show and tell controversy. They got along so great in elementary school; what the hell happened to split them up?
Showing makes prose more cinematic, but it also limits its palette. Artfully and dynamically painting the scene in words satisfies every writer’s frustrated dream of making movies, but overuse is like trying the same roundhouse punch until your reader drops, or drops you.
As much as we are expected to produce Technicolor, Odorama brain-movies for our reader, the glassjawed ham & egger will swiftly succumb to the shocking uppercut of just coming out and telling the story, now and again.
In film, showing is essential, because everything is fed to the passive viewer, who slips into a waking dream, if the particular film doesn’t suck out his will to live. In literature, of course, imagery is an expensive illusion generated by a flurry of words, the visual writer a tourist in the cinematic dream state, saddled with a horrible exchange rate and indecipherably showy directions. It falls to any writer above fortune cookie counts to weave a spell in which the reader must actively pull the words off the page one at a time, and still daydream according to precise and purple instructions.
Showing gets a lot of unfair praise, while telling is often unjustly maligned. You drop a fortune to take your brats to a Hannah Montana “show,” while a “tell” is what cost me my kid’s college money at the Commerce Pai Gow Casino. The highest praise lavished on modern genre hits usually applauds their relentless pace and vivid imagery, and readers often cite the cinematic quality of their favorite prose.
But even the zippiest thriller books can only chase after the hypnotic buzz of movies, and “breathless” thrillers often lumber along glacially under a welter of cinematically redundant detail that shows nothing at all (Witness Patricia Cornwell describing an entire dream kitchen with only the brand names and colors found in the catalog).
I love cinematic detail in my own and others’ writing; I try to nail every image as vividly as possible, but that’s why all my favorite work is double the word ceiling for any paying magazine. Something had to give, so I tried to make my descriptions more strategic, to pick nodes of detail that triggered mnemonic responses in the reader that would fill in the gaps. Some readers would prefer you count every palace guard’s pocket change, but they’ll unconsciously thank you if you find a way to make them think you did it, and save a few trees.
Still, there must be a simpler way, and a better way, that wins back the atavistic, hoary old charms of good old-fashioned storytelling, that has kept our backward art alive and kicking against all comers, from cave paintings to the Playstation.
Harlan Ellison is a past master at evoking vivid settings while leaving the darkest conclusions to bloom in the sleepless reader’s mind. His strongest stories, particularly his asshole-fables from the Gentleman Junkie era (at the risk of getting sued [Hi, Harlan’s Googling Lawyers!] I won’t quote anything, but trust me), he pointedly tells you just what kind of shithead you’re about to share spit with, in colorful, but indisputably telling tones.
Tom Picirrilli’s hallucinogothic noir style revels in decadent but svelte imagery, then counterpunches with direct apostrophe, the narrator flat-out telling you the fucked rules that govern his misbegotten character’s lives. The hairy brass balls on this guy drop out of the book and onto your chin, when he does this trick right.
This kind of technique breaks the wall, turning off as many readers as it probably turns on, but reader’s aren’t reflexively turned off by a voice, so long as its distinctive qualities add to the delivery of the story. The words aren’t magic smoke or dancing army ants. They’re words some guy or gal wrote to trick you into dreaming their dream.
Having only muddied my own neat personal definitions, I picked up a case of Heineken and went to see the Wise Old Owl. He told me some stuff that made me nod gravely and scratch where I hope one day to glue a convincing beard, because all his wisdom directly contradicted what I thought I totally understood. “I think telling plays best in moments of relative stillness,” he hooted, “the calm
between the storms. That’s where literature can pull off cerebral effects that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Now, I’d supposed that showing would be called for to lace less dynamic portions of a story with theme and atmosphere, while telling would be good for hustling readers through the unlovely mechanical tuff that intrudes on every story. And I had to agree, because NOBODY can put them away like Mr. Owl.
Then he got loopy, like he saw juicy, tender pink mice flying out of my pockets. “But when it comes to action, it’s all show me show me show me. And every single word that ISN’T a show-me word has to do the work of at least a dozen others, in order to replace them, add velocity, AND still communicate something deeper.”
Sure, we all want more action, but as it gets bare of metaphor and imagery, doesn’t it approach telling what happened, baldly, tersely, to speed the reader ahead all the faster under the falling expositional brick you’re dropping on the next page.
A long time ago, I stopped trying to tweak my story ideas so much that the idea alone would give you an embolism. I realized that just articulating my simplest idea so another could and would want any part of it, would tax every last brain cell to destruction, and so the weirder things get, the more plainly they have to be described.
Mr. Owl chided me for the foolishness of only bringing one case of beer, and flew away. I was left no closer to any solution, but it’s still my dream to see show & tell reunited again, and not like on that Captain & Tenielle special, where you could totally tell they’d both been hit with curare darts.
If nothing else, I learned anew that reexamining the purpose and approach of each sentence as an entity, an attack, unto itself, can make any writer break up the numbing patterns that surface in veteran career writers as well as novices.
But we must remember first and foremost that we are writers of stories, not movies. All writing is storytelling. If your words string together to form an image, you are playing with powerful tools, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find what all the other tools can do.
And don’t give beer to owls.