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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Looking for That Thin Line

Showing you my daffodils

The intrepid Ulysses Reading Circle met last night to discuss Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. I don’t intend to give a full report on our discussion (some of what is said in Reading Circle stays in Reading Circle), but the book got me thinking again about something I raised in our conversation, addressing myself primarily to the two fiction writers in the group. It’s this business of “Show, don’t tell” that writers hear all the time these days. (They are told. Is that ironic?) Sherwood Anderson, I noted, did quite a lot of telling. His characters were often silent types, either unable or unwilling to express themselves to others in their little town, even to their own spouses. (Marriage in Winesburg was more inevitable than desired.) The writers agreed, and I guess we chalked it up to the time, this novel or group of stories – whatever one decides to call it – being now almost 100 years old.

This morning I remarked to David that “Show, don’t tell” these days has almost the force of law in writing advice. Certainly it is an article of belief, a dogma of fiction instruction. Does this mean fiction before our time somehow fell short? Was it in an earlier, lesser stage of literary evolution? Or is today’s dogma simply current fashion, possibly “tomorrow’s outworn myth”?

David made an interesting point. If we see fiction as coming out of story-telling, he said, why would we denigrate it for telling? A story-tellers tells a story, he said, adding, “It’s not a movie!”

I’ve pondered this question before. Like so many of life’s fascinating questions, though, it has a way of coming around to nag me again and again.

Here’s one of the first sites (following a Wikipedia entry) that turned up in my search today. It’s a copyrighted site, and I’m reluctant to quote from it, partly because of the copyright and partly because I’m not crazy about the “evocative description” he uses as a substitute for flat telling. For me, the description is full of trite adjectives. And anyway, isn’t the writer telling the reader what the woman looks like, rather than, as in the rejected sentence, just telling the reader she’s old -- so that the former, more descriptive telling is not called telling, but showing?

Another site offering the same lesson and advice on avoiding the pitfall urges the addition of detail. So is showing just telling more? Caution is urged, relevance of detail stressed....

I keep scratching, and the itch doesn’t go away.

Then I come upon a site where a writer calls “Show, don’t tell” “the Great Lie of Writing Workshops,” and I can’t wait to read it! Joshua Henkin makes the same point David made, i.e., that stories are not movies and can do things movies cannot --
most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction). To put it more succinctly, fiction can give us thought: It can tell. And where would Proust be if he couldn’t tell? Or Woolf, or Fitzgerald? Or William Trevor or Alice Munro or George Saunders or Lorrie Moore?
Henkin blames lazy instructors’ and lazy students’ reliance on the “Show, don’t tell” dictum for a lot of bad fiction writing, the kind full of pointless description that does nothing to reveal character or advance plot. I really, really recommend going to the Writer’s Digest site (so I’m giving the link here a second time) to read what Henkin has to say. And then you might want to go back and read again the supposedly improved versions on other sites advocating what they call “showing.”

Read like a writer. Write like a reader. That’s my very vague and unspecific advice.

How do you see the telling/showing question?

Showing chionodoxa


Fleda Brown said...

I always find something interesting in your posts. I have long agreed with what you say here. There are many good poems, also, that tell and do little showing. It all depends, doesn't it, on the skill of the writer, not whether there's telling or showing.

Carol Cronin said...

I think the key is a balance between showing and telling. All of one or the other gets repetitive. And it's also important to keep in mind that anything that doesn't advance the plot is probably a "darling" in need of "killing."

I like your "write like a reader, read like a writer advice." That could even be applied to the rest of life too, if expanded to "see things from the other's perspective."

Thanks for the nice blogs!

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks to both of you for visiting and commenting. I am still mulling over this question and will probably never finish doing so. I may think I've come to the end, but no doubt the question will arise again -- if only because I forget my most trenchant insights in the passage of time.

Deborah said...

I have no answer to the question but it's certainly one to ponder. I especially appreciated your use of the word trenchant, which is a wonderful word I'd forgotten and had to look up.

P. J. Grath said...

Well, of all things coincidental -- I am re-reading Fleda Brown's memoir essays, DRIVING WITH DVORAK, and here near the end of the book I find this: "I remembered W. D. Snodgrass's term, tact, a restraint that keeps out of a poem the language that tells us how we should feel," and I think, YES! Tell me how your fictional world looks and smells and tastes and feels and sounds, tell me whatever you want to tell me about the characters and what they're doing and what's happening around them, but please do not tell me how to feel about it all! Leave that to me, thank you!