A Note to Writers: This Show-Not-Tell Business
by Tim Garvin | Oct 16, 2019 | Essay
The first advice you get when you want to write fiction—MFA programs are full of this advice—is to show and not tell, which is to say the writer must offer readers visualizable scenes. Chekov, in a letter to his brother, said, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes, he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” This seems to demonstrate and validate the importance of this show-not-tell business. He’s showing us a bit of scene here—in his effortless Chekhovian way—and so, dear writer, go forth and do likewise. But here’s the complicated part: within that sentence, and in every sentence, there is always a bit of telling. Which is what I want to talk about. I’ll get back to Chekhov later.
Put aside for a moment that all language is really a form of telling. After all, when I write broken bottle I am not literally showing you a broken bottle but am relying on you to conjure one up in your mind. The showing part fiction writers want to emphasize is that the track of words should provide good imagination-enabling springboards so the reader can vividly be there in the scene. And so fiction writers cheer on the use of broken bottles glittering like stars and shadows rolling past instead of “telling” that it was a dark moonlit night. And fair enough. But fiction takes us on a much more winding route to gain its effects, mostly without our noticing it.
My father was a natural storyteller. He was a pilot in World War Two and before that flew charter flights. He told me this story: he once flew an older man, Poss Johns, to California to attend the horse races at Santa Anita. They stayed together in the same hotel room. Poss spread several sheets of newspaper between their beds and, making himself comfortable against his headboard, began to consume a fifth of whiskey. He told my father not to exit his bed on the space between them but to be sure to use the other side. They turned out the lights and Poss, still drinking, began to cough and spit. My father eventually got to sleep. When he woke the next morning, he glanced down at the newspaper and found it so covered with phlegm and blood that it “looked like somebody had butchered a hog.”
If the story continued, I have forgotten it. As my father told the story, his tone was inflected with his dry, seen-plenty, farm-boy delivery. (My father was, in fact, a Kansas farm boy who got airplane fever when a crop duster buzzed the barn he and my uncle were shingling. My father descended the ladder, and a half hour later he and the pilot buzzed my uncle.). When my father spoke from Poss’s point of view, his tone was inflected with Poss’s half-apologetic, half-indifferent attitude. Neither of them mentioned tuberculous, and my father did not mention it to me.
That’s a tale chock full of fictional elements. As my father rummaged his memory to convey it, he employed a generous flavorful tonality in both his narration and in Poss’s speech, that way revealing both character and authorial depth. His selection of one-thing-after-another incident, called plot, also reveals character and authorial outlook, since plot, even if it is not completely made up, lets us know what the author thinks is important. The story also has the tuberculosis omission, which provokes chilling wonder at the innocence of a youth sleeping beside a possibly contagious man, as well as a silent reminder of the eerie indifference of each to another, my father to Poss and Poss to my father.
In other words, there is a lot more to the effect of fiction on the psyche than the show-not-tell mantra can convey. That mantra, however, may be about all that can be taught. You can explain in an MFA workshop what Chekhov meant by his famous sentence, that we must permit readers to imaginatively inhabit our scenes so they can feel the world through our characters’ points of view, and we do that by making things resplendent with knock-around physicality. Then, perhaps, a thoughtful student remarks that Chekhov writes that it was not a dog that ran, or a wolf either, but instead a dog or wolf, not sure. The student points out that that tiny or, that bit of equivocation, is not a reference to the world of visible things like bottles, but instead a reference to uncertainty, a mental state, and that reference cues us that, damn, it’s dark, because dog or wolf, can’t be sure, and you, dear reader, can’t either. In other words, by inserting the or between dog and wolf, the writer has thrown himself intuitively into the reader’s point of view and imparted to the reader’s mind the flavor of that moonlit night.
That’s a lot of words about a simple or, and if you corralled Chekhov at a cocktail party to discuss your or insights, he would likely listen patiently for a moment, then remember he was promised elsewhere. (He was, his friends said, the soul of kindness.) Because he would know that discussions of or and all other discussions of the numberless effects words have on the human psyche cannot locate the source of those effects, or empower another to locate them in him or herself. That source is not found by learning the famous show-not-tell technique. MFA workshops, if generous and thoughtful, can be useful to a writer, but mostly because he or she picks up, by a mysterious inner osmosis, the affect his or her writing has on others. The best writing is not done by following technique, but by employing the same empathetic intuition my father employed in his vivid narration about Poss Johns and his newspaper. I just used the phrase empathetic intuition. As if I knew what it meant. As if I do not stand before that phrase with my hands folded in wonder. Because that’s what the best writers, the ones we most honor, offer. They somehow penetrate the murk of existence and express its meaning. And that penetration is done by empathetic intuition. Or by some power anyway. Somehow.
This means, of course, that writers can learn only so much in school. When someone asked Hank Williams how he could write such beautiful songs, he said it was just sincerity. My MFA program took three years to complete. Sincerity is taking a bit longer.