YOU’VE NO DOUBT HEARD THE SLOGAN “Show, don’t tell.” Under some circumstances, that advice is good; under others, it’s exactly wrong. Storytellers constantly have to choose between showing, telling, and ignoring.
Of these, showing is what you do least often; but since showing is also what takes up the most space, it deceives many critics into saying “The good writers show much more than they tell.” Critics say this because they examine only the text; we writers know better, because we deal with the story.
The very terms are misleading. How can you show anything in fiction? The story always has a narrator. On the other hand, in theatre and movies you show almost everything. That’s because plays and films are dramatic in form. The action unfolds in “real time” while the audience watches. Fiction has a narrator, a storyteller. Instead of the audience seeing events directly, they are unavoidably filtered through the perceptions of the narrator.
Yet film is not completely dramatic – it only seems that way to the audience. In fact the screenwriter carefully chooses which information to present as a scene, and which information to have someone on-screen tell about, as an off-screen event. If you think about it, films would be deadly if they showed everything.
Take Three Days of the Condor, a Robert Redford vehicle in the 1970s. (The book was Six Days of the Condor – they started compressing right from the start.) If the filmmakers actually showed us everything, it would take three days to see the film. They left out a lot of stuff. We didn’t need to see every bite he ate, every time he went to the bathroom, every step he took. To suggest a journey, they only had to show him starting out and then arriving. To suggest a night’s sleep, they only had to show him going to bed in darkness. If we then see him walking around in daylight, we assume it’s the next day. We fill in the trivial information. We don’t need to be told it, because it has nothing important to do with the story. This is the stuff that gets ignored – and fiction writers make the same kinds of choices all the time.
A lot of information that is important to the story is still not important enough to be worth a whole scene. For instance, if characters are searching for vital information, and it takes a day of poring over files and books, we need only a montage of short clips of mountains of books, armloads of files, weary-looking actors getting bleary-eyed from reading – thirty seconds of film time. This is the filmic equivalent of “telling.” In fiction, you would have covered the events of the search even more economically, by saying, “They went through nineteen file drawers, paper by paper. They cracked open books that had ten years of dust on them. Even after all that searching, they almost missed the answer when they found it.” There it is – a day compressed into three sentences.
It would be ridiculous to show all that searching instead of telling it. While the fact that they worked hard to get the information is important to the story, it isn’t important that the reader actually experience it. Instead, the storyteller gives them enough information to let them know that the search happened, that it wasn’t easy. Then the storyteller relies on the audience’s memory of similar hard research in their lives, or their imagination of how hard it must be or how boring it would be to do all that reading. In this case the right advice is “Tell, don’t show.” That is the narrative technique, to tell what happened without taking much time.
The important scenes, the ones that must be presented dramatically, are relatively rare – but they end up taking the bulk of the screen or stage time because “showing” is so terribly time-consuming. What you show as a scene will stick in the audience’s memory far more than things that are only told about. To the audience, what seems to happen in a film is all the neat scenes, all the tense moments. But the storyteller knows that most things that happen in a film are only told about, hinted at, glossed over, just as most things that happen in fiction are given in brief narrative form.
What is the difference between dramatic and narrative, between showing and telling in fiction?
For sixteen years I put up with his constant whining. His students were stupid. He was never given any good courses to teach. They always assigned him the most worthless graduate students to advise. He was sure they would never renew his contract. When they renewed it, he was equally sure they’d never give him tenure. By the time the decision was made, I was praying he was right.
Unfortunately, he got tenure – and a raise every year, his own personal computer, and several good convention trips a year, and all the time I had to listen to his whining in faculty meetings, the faculty lounge, the corridors; even in my office I could hear him whining clear down the hall. It was too much to hope that another university would hire him, though I praised him to every department chairman I met, hoping they’d try to lure him away.
I began to dream of ways he might die. A fall in the snow. Getting run over by a truck. His bookshelves tumbling over on him. Accidentally taking an overdose of Serutan. I imagined him arriving at the emergency room, whimpering at the doctors and saying, “I know you’re just going to let me die.” I imagined the doctors saying, “Damn straight.”
e came into my office without knocking, something even my wife doesn’t do. “I don’t know why I put up with this,” he said.
Oddly enough, exactly the same sentence was running through my mind.
“This new rule about doing our own photocopying is obviously aimed at me,” he said. “They’re trying to harass me into leaving.”
“If you’d have your students buy textbooks instead of copying entire books for them – “
“There is no single book that is suited to my classes. But I should have guessed you’d act like this. You probably suggested that they cut off my photocopying privileges.”
“There’s a cutback. We lost two student aides. It has nothing to do with you.”
“So you’re one of them. Fine. I don’t need you. I can get a job anywhere.”
If I had thought there was a chance he’d actually quit his job, I would have said something snide. However, I knew perfectly well that his whining would eventually lead the chairman or the dean or somebody to assign a student aide to him personally, just to do his photocopying – and if I said anything nasty to him in the process, he’d whine about that, too, and I’d end up sitting through meetings with the dean about my inability to be supportive of other faculty members.
So I didn’t say anything. I just looked him in the eye and smiled, hoping all the while that he would die. It was a deep, sincere desire, one that I had often felt before. But I didn’t kill him.
The same two characters; pretty much the same information. We learn that there is tension between them, and the narrator believes that the conflict arises entirely from the other teacher’s whining. But the first version is merely told, not shown.
What differences does it make? Notice that the second version, the scene, takes longer, though it gets through far less overall information and covers far less time than the narrative version.
At the same time, the pure narrative seems like a mere prelude. It is leading up to the story. We expect it to be followed by a scene. After reading the narrative paragraph, we still feel that nothing has yet happened. But at the end of the scene, we feel that something has happened.
The scene makes the tension between characters more immediate and real. But the narrative makes it seem as if it has gone on longer, so that the annoyance isn’t triggered by a single incident, but rather by a cumulative list of offenses.
Which one of these is the “right” choice? Either one could be right; either could be wrong. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play – these are outside the scope of this Chapter [our Pope’s career]. However, if the author wanted the reader to get a feel for the murder victim, to remember him as a character instead of simply getting the narrator’s attitude towards him, this or some other scene would be essential. Characters are made more real through scenes than through narrative.
©Andrea MarshallDodgson 1973.