Telling, not showing

Regarding the opening passage in the short story “Dulse” by Alice Munro, in which we are introduced to Lydia, who is the protagonist, Francine Prose writes the following:

Finally, the passage contradicts a form of bad advice often given young writers–namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell. Needless to say, many great novelists combine “dramatic” showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out–don’t tell us a character is happy, show us how she screams “yay” and jumps up and down for joy–when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language. There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing. A lot of time would have been wasted had Alice Munro believed that she could not begin her story until she had shown us Lydia working as an editor, writing poetry, breaking up with her lover, dealing with her children, getting divorced, growing older, and taking all the steps that lead up to the moment at which the story rightly begins.

My excerpt is from Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, which I mentioned in a recent post. Prose provides the opening passage from the Munro story (which I won’t do here) and then parses it almost word by word to show how the correct use of specific words gets far more work done in far less space and time than a dramatic showing of certain facts about Lydia’s past would.

Insights like the one above come on just about every page. I love the fact that the book takes a serious, non-commercial approach to the craft of writing, that it doesn’t hesitate to skewer a few bits of received conventional wisdom and then back it up with examples and thoughtful discussion.

Now back to reading.

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One Comment on “Telling, not showing”

  1. Darren Says:

    Great post. I recently read James Agee’s A Death in the Family for the first time and was stunned by his ability to “tell” me about his characters. It’s what makes it such a great novel, I think. This is maybe my favorite passage in a novel full of favorite passages. It’s from the point of view of a young woman who is preparing for her husband’s funeral:

    “I am aware of what has happened, I am meeting it face to face, I am living through it. There had been, even, a kind of pride, a desolate kind of pleasure, in the feeling: I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it. It had of course occurred to her that this happens to many people, that it is very common, and she humbled and comforted herself in this thought. She thought: this is simply what living is; I never realized before what it is. She thought: now I am more nearly a grown member of the human race; bearing children, which had seemed so much, was just so much apprenticeship. She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the strength that human beings have, to endure; she loved and revered all those who had ever suffered, even those who had failed to endure.”

    Describing complex human feeling accurately is really, really hard, which is maybe another of the reasons teachers encourage young writers to describe actions and locations instead.


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