Should we show or should we tell? dilemma for writers – what’s your advice?

checkhovShould we show or should we tell? dilemma for writers

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of work by new and independently published authors recently, mostly free downloads. and I keep being reminded of that popular piece of advice for writers “Show, don’t tell”.  As Mark Twain famously put it “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”

Now, I’ve always been a proponent of the ‘show,don’t tell’ advice. When I was tutoring post-graduate students in Academic Writing skills, I would encourage the use of an image, graphic, or descriptive example, based on the tenet that a picture is worth a thousand words. When I was revising for Biology ‘O’ level, my teacher advised us to memorise and practice drawing,large labelled diagrams of the eye, the ear, the digestive system etc, because by reproducing them in the examination we would gain at least 50% for each question  and at least a pass grade.

I think that we  would all agree that a  good story is driven by action and that as authors we  must  create vivid images that immerse readers in the world of our fiction — and show them what’s happening, rather than just telling them. Instead of telling the audience what to feel, we should invoke the emotion and let the audience feel it for themselves.

However, where does this leave us ,as fiction writers? Do we have a thousand words to spare in order to paint pictures for our readers? A story is not a movie or a TV show. We are not writing a screen play. Do we have room for endless pages of dialogue and beautiful descriptions of settings? or are we telling stories?

I wonder if it is a sign of the times that we rely so much on having imagery provided for us, perhaps part of the ‘instant gratification’ syndrome which prevails. We are bombarded by graphic imagery all day and every day and I wonder if we are losing our capacity to use our imaginations. Children are supplied with beautifully illustrated books and films, but how often are they told stories, I wonder. Works of fiction and novels have some advantages over movies and graphic novels. They can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture. Fiction can tell, this is one of its charms. it can give us thought.

So, to get back to the point of this post, I seem to be noticing an increasing trend in modern fiction. There appears to be a style of writing emerging which embraces the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim rather too wholeheartedly, in my opinion. I seem to spend an awful lot of time wading through tedious dialogue and endless descriptions of clothing and weather and hotel rooms etc. The trouble is, showing almost always takes a good deal more words than does telling, and the trick is to ration those precious words carefully. Another important piece of advice often given to writers is ‘Be brief,don’t use three words when one will do’.

As far as my own writing goes, I shall be asking myself whether every part of a story requires strong imagery and active details. Is it necessary (or prudent) to show every action, scene, and sensory element all the time? Have I weighed the importance of the element I’m showing so that the writing has balance, including  external sensory experience and internal reflection. Often, I find that telling is more direct and can reveal things that showing can’t begin to represent. Telling can also act as a summary when showing every single glint on glass isn’t necessary or practical or when the old lady is not the main character.

What is your view? Is there a trend towards the overuse of graphic imagery in modern fiction?

 Post Scriptum I haven’t attempted to embed a poll in a post before, so fingers crossed that it works.;-)