Saturday, 17 September 2016

Screw you, "Show Don't Tell"

Time for a wee rant.

If you even dip casually into writing sites, you'll find stuff like this all over the internet. "Show Don't Tell!" they insist.

Now, obviously if you are at the stage of your writing career where you are inclined to type something like "A man went into a bar. He ordered a drink. A stranger walked up to him and started an argument..." then this is a poke in the right direction. And God knows that in the romance genre (especially paranormal romance for some reason) there are entire series that could be cut down to pamphlet size if some editor just went in and took out all the expository internal dialogue.

But I want to have a good old tantrum about SDT because I think that as a dogma it's - wait for it - ableist and exclusionary. Specifically, it alienates me as a reader, which pisses me off.

Take a look at these examples:

"Resist the urge to explain"! Because you don't want to make things easy for your reader, for fuckssake.

Tell: Jessica was so scared she just wanted to run away.
Show: Jessica felt the blood drain out of her face. Her breath seemed to freeze in her throat.

Now I'm setting aside the fact that this sort of writing turns everything into melodrama (if you are writing a 100,000 word book where poor ol' Jessica is in regular peril, you are going to be bogged down in sweat springing out on her brow, ice-water running through her veins, lurching stomachs, thumping hearts, etc etc until you have worked through every medical condition/cliche in the lexicon or just given up and started repeating yourself). Melodrama is fine - nay, compulsory - if you are writing romance. But...

1) SDT assumes a high emotional intelligence in the reader.

Personally I am not empathetic. I don't read people's expressions particularly well. I don't "feel" their emotions if I am in conversation with them. I do not notice if they avoid certain words or topics. I do not instinctively know what they expect from me in response to their conversational revelations. How I manage is by extrapolating from the overt evidence, based on experience and what I have been taught by people who put in the actual effort to tell me things overtly.

So as far as I'm concerned, every SDT scene is a procession of characters doing and saying random things, followed by me trying to work out why.

"Tell" clues REALLY HELP ME in subtle situations. If you just show Jessica leaving the room in a cold sweat,  I have to mentally pause and scratch my head and go, "She seems to be very upset or scared, I wonder why," (assuming there is no obvious threat like an axe-murderer or a giant spider or whatever in the room). This is no goddamn fun for me as a reader.

I want to be told; "Jessica felt scared; this man with his creepy smile and his laughter in all the wrong places made her feel like she needed to wash herself with carbolic soap." I need some level of explanation.

2) SDT assumes your reader has the same cultural touchstones as you the writer, which is frankly arrogant. It excludes readers of other cultures.

I can't tell what signals consumer choices send, because I'm not into fashion or consumer culture. I can't interpret "coded Jewishness". I can't tell if one character is subtly, cruelly taking the piss out of another unless it is within my age group and peculiar British sub-culture. Which is pretty fucking tiny subset of fiction. 
This is bad enough as a mainstream British reader of mainstream American authors. God knows what it's like for people trying to read across more disparate cultural gaps. It's why we need emoticons.

Here's Giles Coren reviewing Here I Am (which he loved):
"For me it had everything ... But will it also work for you? Is this a great, great novel, or is its greatness only visible to other deracinated Jewish writers with complex sexual needs and a firstborn son named Sam? I can't tell."

Seriously, I read Brigit Jones and didn't get it. That is not my world. Any book that is "closely observed dissection" of anything might as well be in Greek as far as I'm concerned, because all it does is show, not tell.

Look, telling me that a character wears expensive designer shoes and is pharmacalogically dependent conveys information to me. Casually mentioning her slipping off Jimmy Choos and necking Quaaludes does not. (Well, obviously it does now or else I couldn't use the example, BUT ONLY BECAUSE I LOOKED UP EVERY OTHER NOUN when I read Tales of the City.)

3) What makes SDT worse is combining it with other shitty fashionable writers' "rules":

"You're a big shot now,"  she observed disdainfully. - Hey, it may not be the best sentence in the language but it conveys information to me that I do not have to guess.

But no - writing gurus say we must give up all dialogue tags except Said! You can't growl, stammer, laugh or inquire.
And we must cull our adverbs!
Dialogue must speak for itself!

"You're a big shot now," she said, flipping her hair.

No, this is  just doesn't work. Just tell me what is happening, pleeeeeeease.  FICTION IS NOT A GODDAMN COMPREHENSION EXERCISE SET BY THE AUTHOR TO TEST THE READER'S PERSPICUITY.

For my sake - Show all you like, but please please Tell too...

... she pleaded. :-)


Rachel de Vine said...

Quite agree!

Bryan said...


Bryan said...

The only two sentences in the Judeo-Christian bible that are truly poetic (translated into English, anyway) are "In the beginning there was nothing," and "Jesus wept." SDT doesn't quite work, there.

Anne Steen-Tierney said...

I agree with you 100%!!!