Showing Not Telling

Okay– once again I have seen something that has ticked me off, not in and of itself, but as the final moment of text on top of the pile that sends the whole thing cascading down like a slippery, irritating mountain of old typewriter ribbon, showering down in a vitriolic rain.

I’ll admit it– the review was less than flattering. It was a piece, wherein the author (by her own admission) unloaded on me, making me the personal objectification of all she felt bad writers did wrong. In her opinion, I was guilty of “telling, instead of showing.”

Now, I’ve been someone’s personal objectification before–that’s not what made my hackles rise. It was the phrase “Showing Not Telling” that got my panties in a twist. She used it wrong.

I went to my peeps (or, at this stage in the game, my tweeps, Goddess love the social media) and whined, and I was a little surprised at the number and the passion of the replies. “Everybody uses that when they want to sound smarter than they are!” one person Tweeted. “Nobody uses that right–it’s the last refuge of the armchair critic,” someone else complained. And, given that the reviewer in question finished up with, (and this is paraphrased) “I guess this kind of thing is okay for the *average* reviewer but it’s not good enough for me,” I think they could have been right. Like I said, in and of itself, this review didn’t do anything that hasn’t been done quite a few times before: It criticized my work. So what? Lots of people–and lots of critics–have trod that clearly un-virgin territory before.

So what got me wasn’t the criticism–I’m developing a thicker skin to that–what got me was this particular phrase. She used this buzzword in the wrong context, and it’s unfortunate, because whether she liked MY work or not, she was obviously very serious about making her point. EVERYBODY who uses this phrase wrong is serious about making their point, and that part of me that taught pubic school for damned near eighteen years really wants to help them–whether they’re eviscerating me in prose or not. It just seems like someone needs to set the record straight.

“Showing not telling” is a phrase coined by an educator named Rebekah Kaplan to help high school writers find their voice. If she was anything like me, her teaching technique came after reading the umpteenth frickin’ paper that stated something like “I love basketball. I mean, like really really love it.”

The enterprising Ms. Kaplan started to teach writing by STARTING with that phrase– and then having the student writers SHOW someone loving basketball. They would do it by all of the things that writers do–details, word choice, simile, metaphor, connotation, and poetic diction, so that “They really loved basketball. I mean, like, really really LOVED it.” Becomes…

Xander Karcek pounded down the glossy wood of the court, thigh muscles straining, huge biceps pumping, and sweat dripping into his eyes from his black bangs. The ball sang against the boards in front of him and popped back into the palm of his wide-fingered hand as he dribbled furiously, strides ahead of the enemy, in perfect position to score.

He didn’t.

Instead, he popped the ball behind him with the next dribble, and Christian Edwards caught it one-handed and continued the dribble down the center of the court. He didn’t have to look behind him to know Chris was right on his heels—he never had to look behind him. Chris would be there. Chris didn’t know how to fail. And this way, when the opposition came up behind Xander, arms spread, legs wide, ready to block the shot, Xander was there with surprisingly wide shoulders for a guy who stood six feet, nine inches tall in his size eighteen bare feet.

And Chris, the center, leapt into the air, twisted his body, and made the shot with a chest-high dunk, and the fifteen thousand fierce voices, echoing around their bodies until the sound was so thick you could cut it with the slice of a sweating hand, exploded into shrieks of unholy, furious joy, singing Chris’s praises.

Just the way it should be. The whole world should sing Chris’s praises.

Xander and Chris passed each other as Chris recovered his running stride from the dunk, and as they got into position to intercept the other team, they faced the opposite direction. That’s when their arms swung down from the elbows in a smooth low five, and they snarled at each other in triumph.

God, they loved this fucking game.

The Locker Room
Amy Lane

Now, that’s a rather complex piece of prose there–because it could also be a “showing” paragraph for a couple of other “telling” sentences, such as, “They played well together,” or “It was a good moment,” or even “Xander loved playing with Chris.”
But it is, as I said and Rebekah Kaplan meant, a series of details, word choices, connotation and poetic diction that creates the image of two men loving a game together. It’s, uhm, the way I write actually. I mean, that’s the first paragraph of the book–it’s not like I STOP doing it anytime after that, right?

Now in a longer piece, this technique can be used to demonstrate all sorts of things–and I was fond of telling my students that the best use of poetic techniques was to evoke strong emotion. When used on a larger scale, it can set the tone for an entire book–or even just a chapter. To go back to The Locker Room, there is a chapter in which Xander repeatedly tells people, “I’m fine!” while tripping, breaking his toe, throwing a basketball at his coach’s head, and playing basketball until exhaustion. The chapter is pretty much a “showing not telling” example of a man who is NOT fine, and it makes us feel bad for Xander, without him ever once saying, “I miss my lover so badly I want to die.”

If you do this with an accretion of details–Chris’s choice of dressing up, the way he showboats at games, his difficulty with algebra in high school, his refusal to take the lead in the relationship–and you have depth to a character, and a deeper portrait of a man who is comfortable in the spotlight but who acknowledges his own flaws, even if his lover doesn’t see them.

If you do it consistently throughout a work, you have used the details to establish tone, motif, and theme.

So, if that’s “Showing not telling”, and it’s something that I do and that I understand, what is it exactly that this reviewer was objecting to?

If I had to take a stab at it, I’d guess that it was use of third person limited omniscient narrative voice.

Now some people are going to read what I’m about to say and take it as proof that I am pretentious beyond all belief, but you’ll have to forgive me. I spent twenty-three years learning how to or teaching others how to analyze the literary canon. When I write myself, those are the examples I go to for literary voice, simply because I haven’t spent that much time analyzing the stuff I read for fun. Yeah, I know this is somewhat of a dichotomy, but, well, it’s what I do. It’s how I enjoy writing. It’s an inoperable part of my literary voice.

One of the interesting parts of the third person limited omniscient voice is that you can, as the narrator, make observations of indirect characterization masked as direct characterization. An example of this, from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities can be seen here:

Sydney Carton, idlest and most unpromising of men, was Stryver’s great ally. What the two drank together, between Hilary Term and Michaelmas, might have floated a king’s ship. Stryver never had a case in hand, anywhere, but Carton was there, with his hands in his pockets, staring at the ceiling of the court; they went the same Circuit, and even there they prolonged their usual orgies late into the night, and Carton was rumoured to be seen at broad day, going home stealthily and unsteadily to his lodgings, like a dissipated cat. At last, it began to get about, among such as were interested in the matter, that although Sydney Carton would never be a lion, he was an amazingly good jackal, and that he rendered suit and service to Stryver in that humble capacity.

In this case, Dickens TELLS us that Sydney Carton ‘idlest and most unpromising of men’ in the same paragraph as he SHOWS us that the men who possess only superficial talent have begun to depend on Carton to do their dirty work for them.

I like the irony that this approach gives us. As I was fond of saying when I taught, if there is a difference between what the narrator indicates in direct characterization–“Sydney Carton was the idlest and most unpromising of men,” and what he demonstrates for us in his indirect characterization–“Stryver never had a case in hand, anywhere, but Carton was there, with his hands in his pockets, staring at the ceiling of the court;” (for those of you who don’t remember or haven’t read the book, this was the same attitude Carton displayed when he saved Charles Darnay’s life in court–this is a very subtle way of telling us that Carton did all the work and Stryver took all the credit.) Anyway, differences in layers–direct characterization and indirect characterization, or among any of the five layers of indirect characterization–these things give us friction, friction gives us irony, and irony gives us more to think about when we read a book. For me, it gave me Xander having the shittiest day of all time while telling people he was fine. That right there is irony–and not once did I, as the third person omniscient narrator, have to step in and tell people that the guy was hurting. Although one of his indirect characterizations (speech) told us he was fine, the other indirect characterizations–his appearance, behavior, and what the other characters thought about him told us he was not. These are the things that third person limited omniscient narrative can give us with a little bit of sly commentary thrown in (witness Dickens) and this is the reason I like this approach sometimes. God, sometimes it’s just hella frickin’ fun.

So, at a guess, I’m going to say that this faintly archaic narrative technique is what drove this particular reviewer batshit. And I’m sorry she didn’t like my work. I’ve said it before–many times before–but I’ll say it again. I write what moves me. I write to move other people. When other people love that, I am SCARY appreciative–I’m kiss-the-ground-in-the-rain grateful, but in order to write at all, I’ve had to get past the point where I try to please all comers. So, for those of you who don’t like my narrative voice–I’m sorry. Seriously–I apologize. I know what it’s like to pick up something that people keep telling me I’ll like only to find that it’s not to my taste at all–I’m sorry for the disappointment. But I’m not going to try to write any differently–I like what I’ve got going. It works for me.

So, you all may be asking, why did I bother to post this at all?

Well, the thing is, armchair criticism is becoming a bigger and bigger spectator sport. Hell, if you look at Smart Bitches/Trashy Books, it’s even getting to be lucrative, and when done right, it can help moderate an industry in which the most iconic contributors (big presses, press reviews, brick and mortar stores) have become lumbering, clumsy Goliaths, and in which the the new, spryer Davids (e-pubs, book blogs, e-book readers) are without discipline or regulation. The social media has made it possible for the little guy and even the little genre to have support, guidance, and legitimacy in the big indifferent world–and not just for the bigger ‘legit’ sites.

Armchair criticism (criticism via the social media) is important because if the publishing world is going to reform itself around reader expectations, reader/critics have got to be clear about what their expectations are. Now some armchair critics (and this is the category I fall into personally) simply say “I liked it. It moved me,” or, “It wasn’t my cuppa, but I’m not going to sound off because I’m not going to go to all that trouble for something someone else might have loved.” Those armchair critics are fine– seriously–in a way, they’re the people writers are writing for, and we love them to death!

But if the armchair critic does more than simply say “I liked it” or “It wasn’t for me”, and she sounds off with passion but with no information, then the armchair critic can be blown off–and that’s not fair. People who go to the trouble to put their studied opinion into writing for the benefit of other readers deserve to be taken seriously. However, if armchair criticism is to gain any credibility, it has to be ready to play with the big boys. All of that bullshit that our English teachers taught us in ADDITION to “Showing Not Telling” MUST come into play. If you are an armchair critic who wants to be taken seriously, and you were lost when I was talking about direct and indirect characterization, word choice, irony, poetic diction, connotation, third person limited omniscient narrative voice, tone, motif, and theme, then you need to get your game on. Any genre that wants to be taken seriously is going to have writers who use all of these items and more, and who know how to use them in context, and who, in fact, have mastery over them. If these writers (Josh Lanyon, Marie Sexton, Z.A. Maxfield, I’m looking at you!) are going to get their due, then the people who are reviewing them and commenting on them in public and for real are going to have to know and use the same things they do.

And, just like high school students mature into post graduate and even professional writers, if e-publishing media is going to mature, we all have to get past the point where Showing Not Telling is the be all and end all of our critical repertoire.

0 thoughts on “Showing Not Telling”

  1. Unknown says:

    All good points. I think it was time to talk about this sort of thing.

    Everyone has opinions. Lord knows I have opinions about what i read, and I even spout them publicly, now and then. When I do, I try very hard to keep them about the book in question, and to make sure I only talk about what I know, or what i feel about the book.

    I can be an authority on my own feelings, but probably not on much else, as far as literature is concerned. I'm that guy who walks into the art gallery and says "I don't know what's art, but i know what I like." Well, I know what I like, and it's people talking frankly about what they feel. Like this post.

    PS, I also now know about indirect characterization. Well. I now know what it's called, anyway…

    (and completely aside, the artwork on your blog…wow! Nice)

  2. Adara says:

    What Jaime said. If I criticize, I attempt to point out "This is how I feel, but others will probably love this. It just didn't do it for me." And I'll even try to give a "here's why" just for the author's peace of mind of what works for some and not others. In other words, I try to be polite in my criticism and not just "Eww" and nothing more.

    I'm not a literary critic; I only know what works for me, and I know that doesn't work for everyone else. Part of the reason I consider writing a hobby and not a profession is because I haven't studied any of those things since high school, nearly 2 decades ago, so I have no business criticizing those things.

  3. Amy Lane says:

    Which is why I look forward to your comments, Adara–even if it wasn't your favorite story, you're always VERY sweet about saying why:-)

  4. You've done an awesome job of showing. Would you like me to go find her and beat her with a stick? =^.^=

  5. roxie says:

    Even though I'm sorry the reviewer got your goat, I can't help but be delighted with the resulting rebuttal. Brilliant piece of work! You so totally rock!

  6. Kele Moon says:

    You know how the point of blog posts is to craftily get people to want to buy your books by throwing little fish hooks out for people to read and get curious about. . . You did it right!!

    Im so reading the Locker Room now. . . Ironically, I was looking at the other day because of the FTW title. . Now, you've just sealed the deal. As soon as I'm done with these edits. . .It's next on my to be read list!!

    On another note ::stabs self:: Show not tell. . .UGH! I had one of those reviews of which you speak and argh!! Though your blog post on the subject was much better than mine would have been. . . Complete with two big, hot guys playing basketball together!!



  7. C. Zampa says:

    Good post, Amy!

    Hey, I'm on the crew for review site and I have to honestly say I wouldn't know most of the terms you're referring to.

    But,then,I'm looking for hearts of books when I read and review, not dynamics.

    And when characters are strong, hearts are rendered and exposed (as I know your writing to be), then I just get lost in that and I almost always find what the author meant for the reader to find.

    Again, good post!

  8. Birdy B. says:

    It was that excerpt from The Locker Room that made me want to buy it. It was that excerpt, the way you put me on the floor with Xander and Chris, that made me look at every basketball standard, every kid's hoop on the street, with a little half-smile on my mouth, because all I can hear in my head is the incredible lyrical paen to what is ultimately a game, played by men who love it only a fraction less than they love each other.

    I read a story where the protagonists fall in love over the course of two weeks. My issues with the time-frame aside, you have now read the sum total of what the author gave us in the way of details as to their bonding. *That* is the kind of thing I object to, in the show-vs-tell world.

    And if someone can't handle the fact that you use a lot of words when it comes to showing us what's happening? I'm so, so sorry for them. I hope they never have to read a contract or other legally-binding document.

    Keep on ignoring the whiners who think you're too wordy, or whatever their problem is. The words you use are beautiful, and I for one am glad you share them with us.

  9. Cooper West says:

    Really fantastic post, Amy. I am right there with you, and I put that phrase in the same "That does not mean what you think it means" as the dreaded, "write what you know!" That and "show not tell" are used to batter authors by people who often just do not understand the context at all.

    It also amazes me how many people confuse "opinion" with "fact." It is possible to not like or enjoy a well-written work; the idea that if you don't like it, it's poorly constructed is immature and ignorant, honestly.

    Thanks for this great post!

  10. Bailey says:

    Thanks for addressing this in your usual insightful and entertaining way. A special thanks for using Dickens' expo about one of my all-time favorite literary characters.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your insights, Amy. This is a very pertinent post. Personally I feel that showing and telling have their place and a balance of both are needed. I'm getting a bit sick of the opposition between the two as there seems to be a fashion for one or the other and different people seem to have differing opinions as to how each should be used. Personally, I am all for keeping things real, interesting and alive. How you do it, well, that should be up to you. Surely if a work keeps the attention, hits all the buttons and gets you readers, it cannot be wrong.

  12. Damon Suede says:

    Oh Amy, do I hear you on this! And a beautiful example of the ways these English 101 truisms get trotted out in the service of nincompoopery.

    With film folks you get a lot of this too. Producers that got a bachelors in English by mail from OshKosh and only know the phrases "Show don't tell" and "Dialogue is death." The things these people say without realizing it; They quote blogs they read on their crackberries and books they skimmed for a class on Sternberg or whatever. Malaprops and nonlogic. Mindboggling.

    The trouble with soundbite criticism is that BY DEFINITION it reduces the observation to a glib quip, exactly what is most unhelpful to writers and other readers because soundbites are designed to be easily absorbed and discarded. As my manager once said to a production company who'd hired me for a last minute onset salvage, "If you want him to LISTEN, then SAY something!"

    More significantly, it's mostly… um… wrong. When a producer says "I want more tits" or "this felt slow" then I have to try and identify what the problem actually is. If THEY take the time to analyze then I afford them the attention they've afforded me. But if they spit out these pachinko "truths" I know that at best I’ll get a sense of where a problem might be. Identifying it and solving it is my job. That's why they pay me. Over the years, I've learned who warrants attention.

    The same is true with books, of course. Readers aren't writers, mostly. I don't expect them to be, any more than I'd expect someone eating a burger to know how to raise and butcher a steer. Even writers who read read with their own preconceptions. Again, I have to be mindful of when they are being mindful and when they aren't. Soundbite bullshit? Not so much.

    I am keenly aware of my prejudices when I review a book. But judgment is oft prejudicial. I feel like my task is to keep things specific and impersonal so it can be understood clearly and point readers (and writer?) in a direction. In the end, I'm just some shnook with another opinion.

    At the same time, I get paid a lot of money to tear stories apart and fix them. So in essence, I pay attention where attention has been paid. When they talk in soundbites, I answer in soundbites. When they analyze and mull, I do likewise.

    As you say, I pull on my big-boy pants to play with the grownups. Screaming and grunting and pointing at things you THINK you want mostly makes everyone reach for the pacifier… as they should.

  13. Unknown says:

    I teach composition at the college level and I have to say that while I haven't read all of your books yet (I just discovered your work last week), I have already put you on my "must read" list based on "Keeping Promise Rock" alone.

    What you have a knack for is story. Romance novels are often so hard to write well because the format is so predictable and lacking in tension. Readers know that both individuals will meet at the beginning of the novel. Readers know that there will be some sort of conflict (either internal or external) that keeps the potential couple apart for most of the novel, and we also know that because it's a romance novel, the couple will eventually come together and have their happily-ever-after-type ending.

    This sort of happy ending is the exact reason why so many of us turn to this genre, but it's also why so many people complain about how predictable and formulaic some romance novels (and movies) can be.

    You, however, should ignore the lone critic or two. Your writing is not predictable–it's splendid. I love how your works challenge my expectations time and again. Take Keeping Promise Rock — who could have predicted that the accident you feature at the beginning of the novel would not play a part in the climax of the novel? Who could have predicted (especially after the conversation the couple shares in Seattle) that they would decide the stay in their hometown? And the character arcs for both Deacon and Click — wow. The predictable route would have been to feature Click as the damaged partner and to make Deacon his heroic savior who heals his pain. You started down that route, only to quickly challenge your readers expectations by breaking down Deacon's character throughout the course of the novel and having him take the journey that he did.

    Finally, what makes your stories so strong is that while they are technically about two men, they are really stories that talk about the importance of family and leaning on those you care about.

    To do what you did story-wise took an amazing (and awesome!) amount of skill. I'm so impressed with you as a writer and I can't wait to read the rest of your books this summer.

    Again, there's always going to be 1-2 people who don't like your work for whatever reason, but the fact that your work keeps popping up on "must read" lists all over the internet (which is how I found you) is telling. You're an amazingly talented writer and I hope you keep writing for many years to come.

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