Show don’t tell

“Show don’t tell” is advice writers come across all the time in books about writing, and it makes sense to a certain extent, but I’m starting to understand it’s not as clear cut as it first seems. This is the most interesting piece of advice about showing and telling when writing fiction that I’ve come across so far:

There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers. the first is to report what characters are feeling so effectively that readers feel something too. This is inner mode, the telling of emotions…The second is to provoke in readers what characters may be feeling by implying their inner state through external action. This is outer mode, the showing of emotions…The third method is to cause readers to feel something that a story’s characters do not themselves feel.. This is other mode, an emotional dialogue between author and reader….All three paths to producing emotional responses in readers are valid, but all have pitfalls and can fail to work.”

Donald Maas (2016). The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to write the story beneath the surface.

Donald Maas goes on to illustrate these three modes later in the same chapter (chapter 2) of his compelling book, Here’s what he has to say about effective showing (the outer mode) in fiction:

Outer mode: Showing

Some types of fiction, such as romance, he says, rely on inner mode, whereas others, such as thrillers, “have no time to dwell on characters’ feelings.” The danger, though is that these outer moments “can feel self-consciously written”. Maass believes that “when showing works the thing we should look at is not why it works but when.” The secret ingredient behind effective showing is subtext, i.e. when readers feel we are not being told” about something, “but it is evident anyway”. A hilarious example of this is then given:

When I finally come out of the basement, I notice that all the pictures of Nikki and me have been removed from the walls and the mantel over the fireplace.

I ask my mother where these pictures went. She tells me our house was burglarized a few weeks before I cam home and the pictures were stolen. I ask why a burglar would want pictures of Nikki and me, and my mother says she puts all of her pictures in very expensive frames. “Why didn’t the burglar steal the rest of the family pictures?” I ask. Mom says the burglar stole all the expensive frames, but she had the negatives for the family portraits and had them replaced. “Why didn’t you replace the pictures of Nikki and me?” I ask. Mom says she didn’t have the negatives for the pictures of Nikki and me, especially because Nikki’s parents had paid for the wedding pictures and had only given my mother copies of the photos she liked.

Mathew Quick (2008). The Silver Linings Playbook.

The protagonist here is in denial that he isn’t going to get back together with his wife. The reader isn’t told this, but it becomes obvious from this farcical exchange with his mother.

Maas calls Hemingway was the ‘Grand Master of Showing’ and uses this example to illustrate:

That night we lay on the floor in the room and listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt itgo out of me and go off and come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while I am now fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

Ernest Hemingway (1925). Now I lay me.

Hemingway shows us the inner state of a man suffering from insomnia due to shell shock. We are not told how the man feels, and although the language is plain, the suffering and terror of a soldier haunted due to the after effects of war is apparent. as Maas states, “When showing has an impact it is becuase the action is freighted with feelings in the first place”.

About Graham Stanley

Graham Stanley is author of 'Language Learning & Technology' (CUP, 2013), winner of the ESU Duke of Edinburgh award for ELT book of the year, and the co-author of 'Digital Play: Computer games and language aims' (Delta, 2011), awarded the ELT Innovation (ELTon) award for Teacher Resources.

Posted on January 28, 2021, in writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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