Even if I never reached my goal of emotional and sensory identification, at least I knew where I was headed. Telling was a cardinal sin and I’d been brought up to steer away from such transgressions.
Yet now and then, I found myself wanting to write differently. I’d write an entire short story with only the tiniest pinch of dialogue. Although I was sufficiently fond of these tales to send them out to magazines, I still suspected this wasn’t quite the real thing.
More disturbingly, I’d come across patches of telling in novels that I particularly admired. Could it be that this wasn’t wrong after all?
Emma Darwin advocates a balance between showing and telling and, through examples, illustrates the differences between good and bad telling. She demonstrates how telling can actually be quite show-y if it’s specific and appropriate to the point of view. Telling isn’t all bad, and it does move the story along.
Nevertheless, if telling is to be rehabilitated, it can still be a difficult judgement as to when to use it and how much. Emma points out that the archetypal telling-story is the fairytale (and Clare O’Dea illustrates her wonderful rant against the tyranny of show, don’t tell with examples from Goldilocks and the Three Bears). Something in the rhythms or the narrative voice compensates for the greater psychic distance. I hadn’t seen this post when I wrote My Father’s Love, recently published by Foliate Oak, but it feels like a vindication of a story that is not only 90% tell, but kicks off with something dangerously close to a once-upon-time:
When I was a baby in my cradle, or so the story goes, my father gathered up his love for me and fashioned a chalice of burnished gold. He swaddled the chalice in a skein of silk shipped all the way from China and bedded it down in a drawer in his wardrobe where he used to store his cufflinks and bowties. He locked the drawer with a silver key which he dangled from a string around his neck, beneath his shirt, inches from his heart. When it was done, my father smiled, stood back and watched me grow.
Perhaps it’s the Hindu storytelling that’s done it, but I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to that style. I’m not sure if it’s another personal paradigm shift or redressing the balance that’s gone too far towards show, but I’m interested to see where it takes me. No doubt I’ll let you know.
How about you? What’s your take on showing versus telling? Is it an issue in your reading or writing or are you more concerned about other “rules”?