“Tell, Not Show”?

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I was quite interested to discover this summary on the Internet of Lee Child’s recent talk at ThrillerFest on ‘Tell, Don’t Show’ to do with debunking writing myths.

Now, I’m not about to start disagreeing with Lee Child. He’s a best-selling writer and I am not, so he’s obviously doing something right. But the advice he gives here contradicts everything I’ve been told in 30-plus years of writing, and I think it warrants further discussion. Namely, this advice of “telling” not “showing”.

Let’s take this point of describing the character. When you’re writing in third person, it’s easy enough to throw in a brief description: “Jane was a tall, willowy redhead.” I would have no problem with that, and I do like to have the main character described early in the novel – it helps me picture them in my mind. When you’re writing in first person, though, it becomes rather more difficult, without resorting to the old trick of the character catching sight of themselves in a mirror – and admittedly this has been somewhat overdone.

Lee Child maintains that there’s nothing wrong with just telling the story.  To a certain degree, I can see his point.  A writer who becomes preoccupied with technique can lose sight of the story.  But to “tell” instead of “show” flies in the face of everything I have been told about writing, and I think to apply story “telling” instead of story “showing” generically is to tread a dangerous path.  Say you’re writing a story about a character who finds a dead body, and gets scared.  You could “tell” the story just in those terms, but it would be a far more interesting story to describe how the character gets scared.  Describe the dead body.  If it’s been there a week and is festering with flies and maggots, that’s going to provoke a very different reaction in your reader than just stating “there in the grass lay a corpse.”  How does the character display fear?  Does he scream and run away?  Does he lose control of his bodily functions?

I wasn’t present at the talk, so it’s difficult for me to take it in context. However, I do think it’s good food for thought. What’s your take on this? Do you think Lee Child has a point, and sometimes “telling” is better than “showing”? Or would you disagree?


1 comment so far

  1. melanielgarrett on

    I heard Margaret Atwood talking about this once on the radio and she was also of the view that it was a false premise. (From memory, she was actually a bit sneering about the so-called ‘rules’ that tend to be the way writers’ circles police each other.) To her, the goal is to ‘tell well’. When I look at some of my favourite authors, they all ‘tell’ to a great extent. But they tell so well, so vividly, that the reader doesn’t actually notice or worry about underlying technique.

    It’s an interesting question, though will it ever really be answered?!

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