Against “Show, Don’t Tell” (With Walter Scott)

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ (like ‘Less is More’) has become a cliché of creative writing teaching.

It’s usually associated – to my mind at least – with American minimalist writing. Not just the more recent instances, such as Lydia Davis and Mary Robison. And not the middle distance of Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff.

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is what a writer is likely to come away having learnt from reading Ernest Hemingway or James M. Cain.

Reading Chekhov today, it’s clear that he’s a fairly tell-y kind of writer.

However, I have been researching the early nineteenth century for a book of non-fiction called Wrestliana (about my wrestler-ancestory, William Litt) – and this involved reading Walter Scott.

I hadn’t read him before. I had been put off by his reputation. At university, I picked up a general vibe that, if you covered Dickens and George Eliot and Emily Bronte and later Victorians, and even Robert Louis Stevenson, that you got the best of Walter Scott without having to go through the slog of actually reading him.

Not true.

I won’t deny, I found an element of slog in both Waverley and Guy Mannering – particularly before both plots got going. However, Scott is not a writer to be avoided. He’s very much a writer to be loved.

He’s also an early and self-conscious opponent of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. Here is a paragraph from Waverley, Chapter Seventieth, title ‘Dulce Domum’.

But before entering upon a subject of proverbial delay, I must remind my reader of the progress of a stone rolled down hill by an idle truant boy (a pastime at which I was myself expert in my more juvenile years): it moves at first slowly, avoiding by inflection every obstacle of the least importance; but when it has attained its full impulse, and draws near the conclusion of its career, it smokes and thunders down, taking a rood at every spring, clearing hedge and ditch like a Yorkshire huntsman, and becoming most furiously rapid in its course when it is nearest to being consigned to rest for ever. Even such is the course of a narrative like that which you are perusing. The earlier events are studiously dwelt upon, that you, kind reader, may be introduced to the character rather by narrative, than by the duller medium of direct description; but when the story draws near its close, we hurry over the circumstances, however important, which your imagination must have forestalled, and leave you to suppose those things which it would be abusing your patience to relate at length.

What’s interesting is that Scott is suggesting that ‘direct description’ (which would be Show) is ‘duller’ than ‘narrative’ (Tell). In other words, for readers in 1814, Scott assumes they will be more entertained, gripped, satisfied with a more distanced tone.

Tell, Don’t Show.

Why?

I expect that by ‘narrative’ Scott means a summarising tone. In other words, ‘He headed Northwards and arrived in Carlisle, fairly exhausted, just before nightfall’ rather than ‘Come mid-day, he was growing out of breath as he reached the top of each slight incline [and on for a couple of pages]’ or even ‘Mud sucked at his feet as he fought his way through the section of bog nearest the abandoned homestead [and on for a couple of chapters]’. (My made-up examples.)

Today’s readers are likely to mistrust the summarising tone – particularly if it is summarising a character in a way that seems to judge or diminish them. Let us see what they do, we say to the writer, and let us make our minds up for ourselves about whether they were right or wrong to do it. But I think Scott’s point still holds. Readers are excited when they feel they are only getting the essentials. Conversely, they are bored when they feel that they are being given inessentials.

If there’s no reason to show every step of the journey, why not just tell the reader it happened – and get into the next really important moment?

4 thoughts on “Against “Show, Don’t Tell” (With Walter Scott)

  1. Scott has been on my list to read for ages, haven’t managed it yet. From your examples, and from other books of that time and actually later, telling works for me as a reader.

    However, today, I find that it is probably more market/editor driven than reader driven. “Show, not tell” seems to have become a law, that every “tell” is critiqued out. It is less so in literary fiction, but pervades genre fiction, which is what I write.

    But these things happen in cycles, and as literature, reader’s tastes, and market keeps evolving, I hope there will always be some room for the common-sense of telling.

  2. It seems to me that anybody who blindly follows any rule isn’t doing themselves any good. There is a time to show and a time to tell. If you want to become a good writer, the trick is to figure out when each is called for.

    In my experience, however, these kind of rules are mostly showered upon newer writers, who frankly need the advice. I know that I certainly did. When I first read the advice, I didn’t even know what “show” meant.

    I then spent years trying to show and never tell. That was a good thing because I finally learned the difference, and by showing all the time, I realized where it didn’t work.

    Now that I know what I’m doing, rarely if ever do I consciously think about which to use. I just write.

  3. I detest the “show, don’t tell” injunction unconditionally. No diatribes by the corrupt publishing mafia will ever be able to deter me from telling shamelessly and incessantly, using an intrusive omniscient narrator, passive voice, adverbs, prepositional phrases, nominalisations, breaking of the fourth wall, information dumping, idea-driven narration, and all the other cool traits that are vilified by charlatans at the rudder of the contemporary American culture. I boycott all works by those taste dictators, and only read non-fiction, fanfiction, and classics.

    Henry Fielding, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope are also great in defying the fraud of show-don’t-tell.

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