Show And Tell
I was once being interviewed about my book The Elementals by the brightly lovely Jennifer Sky for Interview Magazine and she asked me how I "show and tell" in my novels. I said, "I really just try to show." I was thinking of the old adage "show don't tell." She replied, "At my school they taught us that you have to do both. I thought about this and realized she was right. I had been showing and telling.
In college at UC Berkeley, I studied Modernist poetry and learned about Imagism where the image stands alone to represent a complex of ideas and meanings. I wrote much of my poetry, and early fiction this way. For example,my first short stories were real time scenes without flashbacks or any exposition. As I expanded into longer work I began to include “telling” passages where I stepped outside of the scene to briefly summarize something or to expand on an idea. I found that my editors were asking for more and more of this as time went on. But showing is still essential, of course.
I spend a lot of time with my students, reminding them not to overuse exposition. I tell them that it can be effective, especially thematically, and to deepen and clarify the narrative, but that most of the book should be written in scenes. To identify scenes, make sure you are using a mix of dialogue, conflict, interior thought, description and setting.
Recently I had a student who was writing omniscient third passages that summed up the state of America at a specific time period. These passages were mixed in with closer POV real time scenes of characters in action. I told him that the passages were “tells” but that they worked for me, as long as he kept the rest of the scene in a close third POV with one of the characters.
After that I began to more closely observe “tells” in books I was reading. In Beloved, by Toni Morrison, most of the book is a very fragmented “show.” We don’t know exactly what is going on, because there is no exposition to orient us (except for the cover flap copy). We feel a bit unmoored and confused. For example, what is “124” in the first line “124 was spiteful”? We don’t learn until later that it is Sethe and Denver’s house. I believe this type of confusion seems to be done intentionally by Morrison to represent the chaos and insanity of her topic—the effects of slavery on the mind and body. But the book is also about the triumph of the heart and spirit. And there are moments, especially as the book progresses, where Morrison pauses to “tell” us clearly a bit about what is going on and what has already happened. It seems as if the “tells” in this case, are possibly a grounding force and a sign of wholeness as opposed to the fragmentation of some of the earlier parts of the book. The book ends in a poetic way but there is clarity and beauty in that final chapter.
It is also interesting to note that Imagism came at a time when writers were questioning the ability for wholeness in the world. The subtle symbolism of the image is also a way to reflect a kind of fragmentation. We no longer have the guiding language to orient us and “tell” us what is actually happening. We may feel dis-oriented and even agitated. We must turn inward to try to understand.
Out of this introspection, the story may be revealed.
By the end of Beloved, Toni Morrison has given us all the fragmented pieces and the glue of narrative to hold them together, forming a cohesive whole, a remarkable story.
As a writer, how do you show and tell? What do these words mean to you?