KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 3: Spring 2015
Craft Essay: 999 words

Tell, Don’t Show: Part Two

by Bill Mesce, Jr.

The realist narrative tradition of “show, don’t tell” has been around for millennia. Look at The Iliad (8th century BCE), and the books of the Old Testament.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathshe’ba, the daughter of Eli’am, the wife of Uri’ah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers, and took her; and she came to him, and he lay with her.

—Second book of Samuel

Biblical narratives relate a series of actions with few insights; they show. David sees Bathsheba, he gets horny, he boinks her.

Even early story-makers recognized that pivotal interior drama sometimes cannot be rendered in action. The ancient Greek chorus alerted audiences to back story, subtexts, and unseen ramifications of what was playing out on stage. From Oedipus Rex (Sophocles, c. 429 BCE): “’Twere better sleeping ills to leave at rest.”

Leap ahead two thousand years, to a literary movement which explores this unseen, interior realm. We see precursors in Anton Chekhov, famous for stories where little happens on the surface—there’s not much to see—stories propelled not by action, but by mullings and musings of his characters.

Similarly, The Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898) happens as much in its narrator’s head as on the possibly haunted grounds of the estate where she’s governess to two children. Probably no coincidence that William James, Henry’s philosopher/psychologist brother, coined the label “stream of consciousness” for the signature style of the literary form that was evolving outside his brother’s later career.

The Modernist movement, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories, saw a new, vastly under-explored terrain in the landscapes of the mind. What happened inside characters was as important as what they were doing.

Probably nobody stretched the idea of going deep (telling) instead of going forward (showing) as Marcel Proust did. In his magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time (1922), the work’s signature moment comes early in volume one, Swann’s Way: a flood of memories of the narrator’s childhood years, constituting 148 pages of free-flowing, plotless recollections of images and sensations.

Mimicking the non-linear, chaotic pin-balling of human thought seemed paramount to modernists. No one pushed that aesthetic further than James Joyce, with his novel Ulysses (1922), especially during “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy” in the final chapter—a densely written, stream-of-consciousness passage which, despite its length, consists of only eight sentences, including what’s considered, at ~4400 words, the longest sentence in English literature. To casual readers, this torrent of verbiage seems chaotic, but it’s sculpted chaos—“artful artlessness,” to steal a phrase from contemporary author/essayist Thomas E. Kennedy—in which there really is design, purpose, and crafted flow.

Some contemporary literary authors see showing and telling as the yin and yang that, together, comprise a narrative whole. John Barth’s The Floating Opera (1956) has a discernible plot: narrator Todd Andrews writes about the day he decided to commit suicide (but obviously didn’t). Yet the novel slides into introspective digressions and psychological doodlings unrelated to the plot, often neither showing nor telling but pausing reflectively in the book’s forward movement. These side trips may not be stream-of-consciousness, but they’re conceptual cousins.

Although Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Lagoon” (1896) follows Chekhov’s dictum about what it takes to bring settings to life, the passage below conveys less an image than a sense of place—which, I would argue, constitutes both showing and telling:

For the last three miles of its course the wandering, hesitating river, as if enticed irresistibly by the freedom of an open horizon, flows straight into the sea, flows straight to the east—to the east that harbors both light and darkness. Astern of the boat the repeated call of some bird, a cry discordant and feeble, skipped along over the smooth water and lost itself, before it could reach the other shore, in the breathless silence of the world.

That the line between showing and telling can be blurred reinforces the idea that “Show, don’t tell” reads better than it plays. After all, the page “shows” us nothing because, whether we are being shown or told, we see only the printed word. Writers must provide textual cues in hopes of triggering images and sensations stored in the reader’s mental database, a form of connect-the-dots, with the prose providing the dots and the reader making connections. The more deftly writers place the dots, the more strongly readers respond, and I’ve found nothing in the annals of literature and psychology that guarantees stronger reader response than aiming for the interior.


Still, “Show, don’t tell” can be useful—for instance, it grants an elemental simplicity to Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea (1951)—but it’s only a tool, not the tool; no better or worse than any other in the writer’s toolkit.

Whether writing gurus recommend it or not, any writer’s tool should be chosen because the writer believes it’s the best, most appropriate way of telling a given story, as the nature of that story demands. Proust would’ve drowned Hemingway’s Old Man: “He saw the sea in all the colors he’d ever seen in it season by season, year by year; emerald green, royal blue, aquamarine, teal, topaz, azure, sapphire...” And Hemingway would’ve destroyed the delicious ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw: “Maybe I saw a ghost. Maybe I didn’t. Time to put the kids to bed.”

Remembering Dave Wesner’s words, our energies as writers should not be squandered by worrying about what we’re supposed to do; but focused instead on learning to use all tools available to us, all the strategies our cunning can devise to tell stories that make readers go, “Holy crap!” (or sniffle, or grin), and in ways that are neither cheap nor exploitive. In other words, to “ it beautifully.”

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