|The art of storytelling dates from antiquity. It probably started when early man related some event in his life to his comrades. Things like where he found game, how he subdued it and what he intended to do with his kill were probably the earliest subjects of human storytelling.
Next came invented explanations of natural events. Most of these originated in the storyteller’s mind and attributed things like rain, snow, lightning, wind and earthquakes to the activities of deities.
These stories were entirely oral at first. Nothing was written simply because the development of writing was many centuries in the future. Crude cave paintings probably characterized some of the stories that were important at the time. The only publication of these early stories consisted of verbal repetitions passed down through the generations. As such, they were subject to both intentional and unintentional modifications over time.
Finally, the age of early writing was reached. At first, this new tool was used primarily for bookkeeping. The number of slaves, cattle or horses was recorded as a form of inventory keeping. Barter transactions were tracked and the record was used to assure satisfactory completion.
As early man’s physical needs began to be satisfied more easily, the age of philosophers and historians began. Thoughts about the meaning of things were exchanged and refined by the great thinkers of the time. The written word was a great facilitator for these activities.
Almost coincident with the recording of history, myths were born. Elaborate history-like stories were created from the authors’ imaginations. The line between true history and outright fabrication began to blur as time passed.
And so, written storytelling became a reality. Many of these ancient works remain to this day, and are subjects of extensive debates about their reality between scholars. Stories concerning Atlantis, early Greek explorers and even sea monsters are taken by some to be based in reality and by others as utter fiction. Expensive explorations and excavations have been undertaken to search for the truth behind these stories.
Whether truth or fiction, many of these stories have endured for millennia. They are generally regarded as timeless literature to this day.
Even a cursory examination of these works reveals that they are what they were intended to be, that is, stories. Like their oral ancestors, they represent the telling of an event or thought. They are, for all practical purposes, almost one hundred percent tell works. There is very little, if any, show content. At this point, the reader should be reminded that this effort is called storytelling, not storyshowing.
So, where did our modern mantra of show, don’t tell, originate? In my opinion, its beginnings can be found in the theatrical arts. Plays and vignettes are generally filled with only dialogue, both verbal and physical. The stage settings, costumes and sound effects are depended upon to provide the viewer with a feeling of the conditions surrounding the dialogue.
For a storyteller, the scene, characters, costumes and conditions must be described. This description is necessary to the extent the story is dependent on it. Even these descriptions can be explained to the reader plainly, without resorting to inferences or complicated deductions. Because a play generally has no such plain language, it is necessary to make the descriptions entirely visual. There are times when this limitation in the visual arts results in the viewer reaching an unintended conclusion. This risk need not be endured by the storyteller.
If a careful analysis is conducted of the work of current best selling authors, it will reveal that between sixty and eighty percent of the words written can be categorized as show versus tell. Further analysis indicates that a majority of the show words do not contribute in any way to furtherance of the story plot itself.
So, with this in mind, the question remains. Why is modern successful storytelling so heavily weighted toward showing versus telling? One could be cynical and conclude that without the show content, most novels would be too short to publish as a book. A more thoughtful conclusion is that the show content makes the work more believable to the reader by creating a feeling for the characters and scenes. It’s reasonable to further conclude that this believability contributes to the reader’s enjoyment of the work.
This conclusion leads inevitably to the belief that unless a manuscript is weighted to showing rather than telling, it won’t be marketable.
It’s possible this belief is flawed. A good story with a strong plot and characters should be every bit as marketable through telling versus showing. In fact, if it is the writer’s intention to communicate unambiguously, telling is far less ambiguous than showing. Whether flawed or not, the belief in showing is dominating current editorial decision making. As a result, some excellent story ideas never make it into print simply because they lack heavy show content.
This is not to say that there is no place for show in modern storytelling. Show content that contributes directly to the story’s plot can be utilized to add color to an otherwise black and white canvas. It should not, however, take the place of direct descriptions of scenes and characters that are vital to the story’s thrust. Show content that does not contribute to the plot, while often colorful, can introduce the risk of distracting the reader from the author’s intent.
In my humble opinion, we should attempt to return to the art of storytelling originated by our ancestors and leave much of the set design and costumes to our playwright friends.