Why showing is important in fiction
Showing Why Showing is Important
advice to authors
an essay by
"A great story is life with the dull parts taken out."
"Show, don't tell." It's a mantra for every author. Reviewers, writing instructors, even our peers drum this into us. The chorus is relentless.
Yet...even a cursory glance at classical literature shows that this obsession with "showing" is pretty modern. The Scarlet Letter and even The Tell-Tale Heart are jammed with examples of the authors telling the readers stuff. Don't even get me started on Dostoevski or Tolstoy. Dracula is one of the most imitated novels of the last couple centuries, and it's filled with letters, newspaper articles, diary entries and even dictation cylinders. I mean, it feels like Stoker tells 80% of the blasted thing.
So what's going on? Is this modern mania for showing just a passing fad, or is there something more fundamental to it? Certainly, no one can doubt there are fads in all human endeavors, and literature isn't immune. But it turns out there's a theoretical basis for our modern preference for showing over telling. That basis has to do with how and why people read fiction in the first place, or at least why they skip certain parts.
I've spent most of my life writing nonfiction, mathematics in particular. My primary goal was to convey information. True, mathematicians prize a certain style they call elegance, but mostly the goal is to be clear, concise, and most of all accurate. News reporting has similar goals--or at least it theoretically has those goals in an ideal world.
But fiction is different. Nobody reads fiction for the facts. Still, if fiction gets the facts wrong, it can be ruinous. There's a point in Star Wars where Han says the Millenium Falcon makes the Kessel run in "twelve parsecs." A "parsec" is a measure of distance. That's like saying I made the drive from Tulsa to Oklahoma City in "twelve miles" when it's really 120 miles. It makes no sense, and disrupts the story. Lucas made a mistake, and it damages my enjoyment of the movie even today.
If the wrong facts can disrupt a story, that provides a clue to writing better fiction: take out the parts that disrupt the story, leave everything else, and you've got a stronger piece of fiction. Successful authors give similar advice. The late Elmore Leonard said he tried to leave out the parts that readers skip. Vonnegut said that every word should advance character or plot, and preferably both. That's in line with Hitchcock's observation that the audience cares about the characters, and the plot and everything else are there just to give the characters something to care about.
So the problem is reduced to deciding what parts the readers skip--the parts that disrupt the story. There's a solution with a sound theoretical basis, as anyone who has read John Gardner's The Art of Fiction knows. The solution is to apply the principle of showing, as we shall see.
"In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols."
-- John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
Let it out and Let it in--what to show and what to leave out
It's not practical to tell readers everything about a scene. It would difficult to imagine a more boring story than one that started out like the following and droned on in the same manner all the way through.
Jill sat at a square, maple table drinking coffee. The coffee was too cold. The room was pale yellow, and the puce-colored linoleum floor needed wax. Gauze curtains hung on the window at her left, and the oak door to the outside was closed. Jill was wearing a loose-fitting, floral moo-moo and fuzzy pink bunny slippers. A spider's web hung in in one corner, and the fluorescent overhead light flickered. Jill was angry.Whew. Talk about not being able to see the forest for the trees. It's impossible for the reader to figure out what's important in that mish-mash of detail, but it for sure tells the reader lots of stuff. The question is, what to leave out? As the author, you know what's essential for the story. You want to minimize unnecessary information. If you, the author, engage the readers and make them interested, they will fill in all these extra little details for you. That's why showing is so important. It motivates the readers to fill in the details, to partner with the author in imagining the story, to take ownership of the fictional world.
Maybe all that's critical to the story is that Jill's mad, but if you just say that, readers won't care enough to fill in the details that bring the scene to life. For the above reasons, the author needs to do more than just tell the reader stuff, but needs to do less, too.
The predominant theory of modern fiction involves engaging the readers' imaginations by inducing a "fictional dream." The basic idea is that the story takes place in the readers' minds and making the fiction more intimate and immediate for the readers better engages their imaginations. The author's words are a guide--often a detailed guide-- to what happens in the story, but the story itself happens inside the readers' heads. In this sense, the readers collaborate with the author in creating the fictional world. Launching and maintaining this dream-like state is one of the primary artistic tasks of the author.
Another way to think about this is that readers--at least, modern readers--want to encounter the fictional world holistically, the same way they encounter the real world. We experience reality through our senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, scent. When I meet someone, they don't tell me they're happy, mad, sad, whatever. I infer that from their words and deeds. In order to make the fictional world real, it's the author's task to reveal the fictional world through the words and deeds of their characters.
Now consider what's the best way to induce this dream-like state--to stimulate the imagination of the readers and breathe reality into the fictional world? It seems obvious to me that it's "showing" rather than "telling," but some examples might be helpful. Consider the following, which tells a micro-story.
Jill was angry when Jack entered in the room. When he told her he'd had a flat tire, she could tell he'd been drinking and was lying. She yelled at him. That made Jack angry too, and he left, slamming the door behind him.
This is all telling and no showing. The characters don't even speak. Instead, the author reports what Jack said and that Jill yelled at him. It doesn't even suggest Jill's words. It's flat and devoid of emotion, even though it's telling us about strong emotions.
So, we could improve this by putting actual words in the characters' mouths. This adds showing, of course, but it also makes it more visceral.
Jill was angry when Jack entered the room.
He said, "I had a flat tire."
She yelled at him, "You're drunk."
That made Jack angry, so he turned around and left, slamming the door after him.
This is longer, true, but at least now the characters speak. It's a bit more real.
But if we add more details and establish a point of view, the whole thing comes more to life.
Jill gulped down the last of her cold coffee and slammed the cup on the table. That SOB Jack should be here by now.
The door creaked open, and there the bastard was. She sneered, "Where the hell have you been?"
He shuffled his feet and couldn't even look her in the eye when he muttered, "I had a flat tire." His breath reeked of stale beer.
"Liar!" she shouted.
His face turned white and his jaw muscles jumped. He turned on his heel and stomped out, banging the door closed after him.
Okay, now the whole thing is shown. A couple of the details from the droning example above have made their way into this version, but they are now there for a reason.
One of the first things to notice is that I've established Jill as the point of view character. When she drinks her coffee, it's "cold," and that subjective sensation helps to put readers in her head. She's also doing something--drinking, and "slamming" her coffee cup onto the table. The latter, of course, shows she's angry. Finally, we know what she's thinking: "that SOB Jack is late." In rh next paragraph, the point of view is reinforced by having the door "creak" open and having Jill react by thinking, "sure enough, there he is."
When Jack appears, we--and Jill--infer Jack's lying because he shuffles his feet and avoids eye contact. We know he's drunk from the smell of his breath. True, I've told the reader that he shuffled, avoided looking at her, and has beer breath, but because I've established Jill's point of view, the reader imagines the inference "he's lying" happening inside Jill's head. We've now got the readers working the story with us. It's come to life.
When Jill exclaims that Jack's a liar, we know he's mad because his face turns white, turns on his heel, "stomps out," and bangs the door after him.
It's also instructive what we did not add. We don't need to know about Jill's floral print moo-moo, or Jack's pressed chinos. The readers can, and will, fill in those kind of details in the movie we've started playing in their heads. On the other hand, that lipstick on Jack's cheek might help explain Jill's fury. Then there's Chekhov's maxim: if there's a gun over the mantel in act one, someone needs to pull he trigger by act three. So maybe we need to know about Jill's dress after all, because Jack uses it to strangle her later. After all, the example isn't much of a story at the moment.
The earlier examples are reporting, the last example is storytelling. There's a big difference. The final example adds details that enhance the story while leaving out the stuff that doesn't.
Distancing Effect or Intimacy Effect?
I have to note that there's a competing theory of fiction, although it applies most often to theater. The one I've described above owes much to the pioneering work of Joyce, Faulkner, and other giants of the early twentieth century. Their work revolutionized storytelling by pulling readers deeply into the heads and hearts of their characters. In the "fictional dream" we don't want readers thinking while they are reading--we want them experiencing the story. Most authors do want their readers thinking about themes and content, of course, but they want them doing so after reading, not during.
Bertolt Brecht was an equally important writer in the last century, and he took a contrary view, that of a "distancing effect," or Verfremdungseffekt. His idea was to constantly remind the audience that what was happening on the stage was not real and was an artifice. The goal was to engage the intellect of the audience member. This is a powerful idea, too, and Brecht has many disciples, although his primary influence has been in theater (Kushner, for example) or in cinema (Goddard and Fassbinder come to mind).
It's safe to say that today, at least in commercial fiction, the "fictive dream" idea is dominant. It provides a more intimate and immediate experience for the reader and breathes life into the characters, the plot, and the themes.
Written words are but a shadow of the real world. Words come out of the darkness only when they touch a reader's heart. Words can be pregnant with comedy, tragedy, adventure, and even with truth, but it is energizing the readers' imaginations that quickens the words and breathes life into the story. As authors, we can strive to do no less than Ernest Hemingway, who said: "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea, a real fish, and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough, they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true."
Read more essays on writing by Max at
"Thoughts on Writing"