It hasn’t been very long since I first heard the “Show, don’t tell” criticism that is so pervasive in creative writing circles now.
I honestly wasn’t quite sure what was meant by it, and had to ask here what my readers thought it meant. Their responses made sense, and I came to understand it more as a valid criticism.
Lately, however, I am starting to think that it isn’t as valid a criticism as all the workshop leaders and critique partners might want it to be. I’ve been re-reading some of my favourite books, books I love so much that I’ll read them the way other people snack on chocolate and chips. These are books I go back to when I am in the mood to read but can’t take on anything new or unfamiliar. They’re books I go back to when the world outside stops making sense and I want a place to hide. They’re also books that have outsold most other books.
Maeve Binchy, Ken Follett, JK Rowling, Harper Lee, C.S. Lewis–those are all writers whose works are popular, profitable and about which people are passionate. Each and every one of those writers is a Teller. A storyTELLER who uses their skill to tell a story. Don’t get me wrong–other favourite authors like George R.R. Martin excel at showing, and through them I can see how it’s a useful tool in a writer’s kit. But more and more I am struck by how easy and comfortable a well-done Telling read can be.
Different authors have different voices and methods, and I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps it isn’t actually very bad criticism to insist that all books must read like screenplays. Because that’s where I think the Show Don’t Tell rule has come from. It seems to be most evident in American books by American authors who have also written for movies or television or who hope that their books will be sold to movies or television. Looking back through my list I realise that with the exception of Lee (whose book honestly does a bit of both Telling AND Showing), all the best Telling authors are English, Irish, Welsh–they come from a place with a stronger tie to literature and to the past. They come from a place of writing, not movie-making, and their books are meant to be books first and foremost.
After all, aren’t people forever saying that they liked the book better than the movie?