Show, don’t tell. Put the reader in the moment. Activate the senses with detail. Be specific.
These are all necessary lessons and they’re repeated like a common mantra in just about every creative writing course. It’s not bad advice. There’s nothing wrong with learning how to show a character with action or set the theme with an image of the natural elements. But when writing is burdened with too much showy detail, it’s more distraction than illumination.
What if the slap of frigid cold air, the sting from the stench of rancid cooking oil, sweat dripping, palms itching, nose twitching and fingers fidgeting was all crammed into the first page of a story? Does the reader really need to be reminded of every bodily function a human being could feel in a ten second interval?
“Show, don’t tell” can persuade the beginning writer to add oodles of boring minutia, killing the pleasure of the story, and overwhelming the plot. It’s detail for detail’s sake and the results are typically clumsy and amateurish. I know because that’s the feedback I received from an early piece. It didn’t have details sprinkled or woven into the story. Rather it was image after image, ladled on like thick gravy covering the main course.
I had over-learned the lesson “show, don’t tell.”
Slenderly, languidly, their hands set lightly on their hips, the two young women preceded us out onto a rosy-colored porch, open toward the sunset, where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished wind.
This famous passage from The Great Gatsby is in the first chapter when Daisy and her cousin are sauntering out to the patio. It captures the setting wonderfully and deserves its place up on the literary pedestal of imagery par excellence.
But well before this lovely sentence Fitzgerald had used a “tell”, so plain and effective, it laid the foundation for the showy parts to work their magic.
Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.
The narrator had already pulled us into the story by telling us who he is, and how a certain man had altered his moral compass.
And this is the lesson I wish I’d heard early on—writing is all about how to balance show and tell.
Narration, exposition, stream of consciousness are needed to move the story along or reveal an internal frame of mind. Learning to write narrative that doesn’t sound like a lecture or feel heavy handed and intrusive, that skill is possibly the most important. Because a string of images needs a narrative spine to hold the story together.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …
Can’t you just see young Dickens in a creative writing class at his local community college? He turns in the first chapter to A Tale of Two Cities only to be told the opening lines are too general and excessively broad. The instructor hates the comma splices and suggests he try to give a specific example, to learn to “show, don’t tell”.