Sometimes Telling is More Effective than Showing
An author and scholar for whom I have immense respect added fuel to a long simmering fire by stating in a recent book of hers on writing that too much is made out of Showing instead of Telling. To paraphrase one of her points, she writes that the avoidance of telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out. And to quote her, “There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing.”
Agents and Editor are the Harshest of Critics
If everyone wrote as well as this woman (she has over two dozen titles to her credit), or the brilliant mostly classical authors and their literary works she cites in her book, who could argue? And that is the rub. Especially for someone trying to become published for the first time, and who is having his or her manuscript viewed by the harshest of critics–book agents and book editors. People who are seemingly searching, as if with an electron microscope, for the most miniscule detail to warrant rejecting material.
Don’t Wave a Red Flag – Avoid the Dreaded “Been’s”
In the real world of an author fighting tooth-and-nail for his or her manuscript to receive a fair hearing, the writer has to provide a narrative that does not wave a red flag–or even a yellow one. Nothing can kill a book quicker than if it is perceived to be written in a passive voice, which is most often indicative of scenes crafted in a Telling rather than Showing form. Other than breaking up too many uses of “was” or “were” by substituting an occasional “had been” or “have been,” it is important to avoid the “been’s” and therefore the passive voice narratives that Telling has a tendency to engender.
If a Choice, Overwrite Show Rather Than Tell
While it is 100% correct that many times it is advisable to Tell instead of Show, for most authors pursuing a major royalty publisher, it is much better to have overwritten Show than Tell. Let me put it this way: I’ve never heard of anyone being rejected for the former, but very often for the latter. So while the ongoing Show versus Tell debate may whet some appetites for eschewing the argument altogether, writers need to incorporate as many accepted elements as possible into their material, and Showing (and the active voice is supports) is considered a component of quality prose writing in the overwhelming number of instances.
Coming Soon: Writing Tip for Novelists – Beware When Action Does Not Constitute Movement
Robert L. Bacon