Tow, Don’t Shell

The advice given to aspiring authors, these days, is, “Show, don’t tell.” Examine the stories submitted to a hundred local critique groups across the country and you’ll find the notation “SDT” jotted freely in many a margin.

At its worst, this tic can lead a writer to spin out pages of what in the trades is called “as you know, Bob” dialog — a pseudo-conversation in which one character tells another things that they both know perfectly well, or that aren’t actually important to them at that time but that the reader needs to know. Don’t do that, kids. If you need to tell your readers something in order for the story to make sense, just go ahead and tell them, for Pete’s sake!

Not long ago I thought I’d try reading Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, which I had picked up at a used book sale and tossed on the shelf a year or two ago, knowing it was a classic but not being immediately drawn to it. Published in 1920, it was a best-seller; it was initially awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (though the prize actually went to Edith Wharton, as the Board of Trustees overruled the jury — high drama on the literary front).

The first chapter of Main Street is almost entirely telling, not showing. Of the ten pages of the chapter, about a page and a half are devoted to showing two brief scenes; the other eight-plus pages are pure telling. Colorful telling, to be sure — and arguably the opening two paragraphs are about a 50/50 mix of showing and telling. Nonetheless, it’s clear that nobody ever told Sinclair Lewis to “show, don’t tell.” And we’re all better off for it.

If we go back to the 19th century, we find Balzac beginning Lost Illusions (1843) with several dense pages describing a provincial print shop. Dickens begins Nicholas Nickleby (1839) with three hefty pages of telling before he introduces a one-page scene.

Turning to today’s action-oriented fantasy novels, on the other hand, we find showing in full flower from the very start. Here’s the opening sentence of The Demon King, by Cinda Williams Chima:

Han Alister squatted next to the steaming mud spring, praying that the thermal crust would hold his weight.

The first brief paragraph of Garth Nix’s Sabriel sets a scene of falling rain. The second paragraph begins like this:

The midwife shrugged her cloak higher up against her neck and bent over the woman again, raindrops spilling from her nose onto the upturned face below. The midwife’s breath blew out in a cloud of white, but there was no answering billow of air from her patient.

There you go — birth and death, all at once. Something has changed in the literary arts over the past century.

The influence of Hemingway would be hard to dismiss. Here’s the opening of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940):

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

Immediately we’re thrust into the middle of the scene. Hemingway doesn’t even pause the action long enough to tell us the name of his viewpoint character for three full pages.

The importance of showing rather than telling was partly, I’m sure, a reaction to the novels of the previous generation — the abstract and punctilious wordiness of Henry James, for example. Hemingway would probably have agreed with the poet William Carlos Williams, who famously said, “No ideas but in things.” The practice of telling was not, to be sure, absolute in the days before Hemingway. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) begins with a conversation between two men; the telling is delayed until Chapter 2. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) begins with a fully developed conversation.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that telling has fallen far into disfavor. A more important factor pushing literature toward showing may have been the arrival of movies and then television. Suddenly audiences were being barraged with drama, drama, and more drama, all of it shown rather than told. The introductory narrations used in first-generation TV drama by Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock are gone. It’s all action, all the time, and preferably with things exploding.

I can’t help feeling that it’s time for the pendulum to swing back the other way, if only by a few inches. Maybe we don’t have to shell the reader with the artillery of our words. Maybe we can tow them along the canal of the story more gently, pausing now and again to let the mules rest while we watch a heron stalking long-legged among the reeds.

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