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Show and tell

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The_spectacular_PG_Wodehouse.jpgAnyone who takes a writing creative class these days is admonished to "show, don't tell," and the prescription has escaped the classroom and entered the market.  An industry professional reviewing an early draft of my current novel, The Celebration Husband, noted that I was "telling" more than "showing."

But with all respect accorded to the industry professional, "show, don't tell" is more of an ideology than a precept of good writing.  While in certain instances - particularly the presentation of exposition and other background material, the revelation of character traits, or an action scene - "showing" can be more effective than "telling," the foregoing is not absolutely true.

For instance, P.G. Wodehouse, one of the world's best selling authors, relies heavily on "telling" in all three instances.  In Right Ho, Jeeves, after sighing about the "dashed difficult problem" of how to begin a story, Wodehouse commences with a recitation of Bertie Wooster's trip to Cannes with his Aunt Deliah and Cousin Angela - a classic instance of "telling" background details.  

Nor does Wodehouse wait to let the reader figure out his characters.  Thoughout the Jeeves novels, Wooster is telling you what they're like.  In Thank You, Jeeves, Wooster explains away readers' questions about the presence of his friend, Chuffy, on the pier late at night by telling us that Chuffy is the kind of guy who stands beneath his beloved's window and, if she's on a yacht (as she is), well, then he'll go stand on the pier.  No need for Chuffy to "show" us this side of himself.    

Wodehouse even makes masterful use of the "telling" technique for action scenes.  In Thank You, Jeeves, Jeeves narrates a brawl between two small boys that draws their parents in and eventually results in the breaking off a real-estate deal.  Many other writers would have shown such a juicy squabble, but Wodehouse opts to alternate between showing and telling.  

Wodehouse's style of alternating between showing and telling owes something to drawing room and musical comedies.  In Auntie Mame, for example, the climactic horse race is depicted from the perspective of the crowd watching the race - told, not shown.  Similarly, in Pygmalion, the culminating garden party, where Henry Higgins presents Eliza Doolittle to great acclaim and triumph, happens offstage - we hear the characters talk about it.  

Of course, some of these theatrical choices were pragmatic.  Running a horse race in a theater is obviously a non-starter.  Staging a garden party requires many actors and increases costs.  

But an underlying wisdom supports these choices as well.  "Showing" leaves less room for the imagination than "telling."  When - in the movie of Auntie Mame - we watch the horse race (not the spectators), we see how it happened; in the musical, we imagine other possibilities.  The principle is no less applicable with books.  When Jeeves narrates Gussie Finknottle's attempts - and failure - to reach a fancy dress ball in Right Ho, Jeeves, we imagine Gussie's comic plight; but when we see Gussie give a speech to a boy's school while drunk, we need not imagine anything: the scene is completely detailed.   

Alternating between showing and telling invites the audience to engage its imagination and thereby deepens the audience member's experience of the story.  Engaging the imagination encourages the suspension of disbelief and the immersion in the world the author has created.  Audience members thus become more active participants in the story, as contrasted with their more passive counterparts being shown everything (as, for example, in a James Bond movie).

Active readers are desirable readers.  Their imaginations engaged, they are unlikely to recommend that writer adhere mindlessly to an ideological motto.

(Image of P.G. Wodehouse from The Guardian)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Pygmalion category.

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