Show Don’t Tell Is a Lie

Lately I’ve been working with a lot of writers who are stuck on “showing,” to the detriment of their work. It’s been an interesting turn of events, since for years at Seal Press the primary reason I rejected memoirs was for telling too much. In fact, most newbie writers struggle with telling–especially memoirists. I came to the determination that this must be true because so much of memoirists’ work is originally done in their journals. Lots of memoirists have processed their work in therapy or elsewhere, so by the time they’ve either decided to take the plunge and write a memoir, or been prodding by others enough times that they “must share their story,” it can tend to be a little process-y–and I spend a lot of time helping writers I work with to see what process looks like on the page.

But the phenomenon of too much showing is a whole different beast. It seems to me to be a common affliction among serious writers. They have taken classes and done their homework. They know that they’re not supposed to “tell” and they understand how detrimental telling can be to their work. They’re obsessed with scenes and visceral experience–so much so, however, that their plots tend to suffer.

When you’re writing–and this is whether you’re doing memoir or fiction–you have to show and tell. The notion that you don’t tell in your writing is ridiculous. Too much showing is exhausting, and it has the impact of creating distance between you and your reader. I’ve had countless authors say to me that “Show, Don’t Tell,” is what they learned in school, and yet “showing too much” seems not to be on the radar of all these teachers–past and present–who are teaching students how to write well.

Likely this way of teaching writing originates from proponents of Ernest Hemingway, who wrote in his book, Death in the Afternoon:

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

The problem here, of course, is that most writers don’t have enough control over their stories or their prose to omit things they know. It’s interesting to note that Hemingway’s style was said to “function as a means to distance himself from the characters he created.” Hemingway also wrote in the ’20s-’50s, during a time when the memoir form that’s popular today would have been considered exhibitionist or downright shameful in its exposition of every interior thought, secret, and feeling.

Today, readers of memoir not only expect a book to bare all, but they also generally yearn for connection with the author. If you omit what you know, or what you think the reader knows, you are usually severing possibilities for that connection. Failing to tell your reader what you’re thinking about makes for hollow places in your writing, too.

I work with writers to break down their scenes and think through the takeaways not only of every chapter, but of every scene. Scenes should be very “show”-driven, showing the reader what happened and painting a vivid picture through imagery, dialogue, and description. Takeaways can sometimes be inherent in the showing, but usually they require a bit of tell. Takeaways are moments of connection, in which you tell the reader about what you–or your protagonist (in close point-of-view fiction writing)–are thinking about. Or it can be what you think others are or were thinking about. The reader is looking for these moments to have their own thoughts and convictions validated. Your scenes (showing) forward along the plot, but your insights (telling) are the glue.

**NOTE: It’s important to note that the above doesn’t really apply for mystery, thrillers, and other kinds of genre fiction, in which you’re purposely misleading the reader or trying to omit certain thoughts, facts, or ideas for the sake of the story. I always tell memoirists, however, not to be cryptic. If you’re not writing a thriller, you are generally better off sequencing your events in an order that makes sense, and not create cliffhangers where they don’t do anything for your reader or your story.

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