Showing and Telling: The Classic Conundrum
Buggered if I can get it right! I know all the theory but when it comes to the mix of show and tell in writing narrative, I struggle to hold to the simple philosophy of showing the reader a character or theme rather than telling them what to notice, what to think and what to value.
The writers whose work I admire most can do it wonderfully well. It’s not just the classic writers like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens who can be models here for aspiring writers but modern authors as well. I think the Australian writer, David Malouf, is a natural at this challenge. Writers like me trying to learn a craft need models before they can be confident to spread their own wings.
I sent the text of my latest story, Saint Mary Mead, to a good friend in the United States. Al is an accomplished poet with a sensitive eye and a deep spirituality that is obvious in his work. I happen to now, however, that he is less confident as a writer of children’s fiction. All the same, he is a thoughtful reader and his deep intelligence was what I needed to polish the text. He came straight back with compliments on the reach of the work but a sense of unease at the old showing/telling tension. Leave out some of the exposition, he suggested and let the story speak for itself.
A complication in this story, of course, is the unfamiliarity of the landscape. The story starts on the North West Frontier of British India – somewhere I have never been. And unless you can count the hour I spent in the airport in Calcutta in 1975 and two days on a cruise ship in the Mumbai harbour my direct experience of India is nonexistent. I have a little more experience of village life in England [to which the story soon moves from the subcontinent] but then the setting in time is unfamiliar. I can plead, of course, that the genre does not require verisimilitude but perhaps I would be more likely to get the showing/telling balance right if I wrote about suburban Brisbane.
This is not the first time I have had this advice so summoning up my courage, I went back to the text. I tidied some of the confusing time sequencing and added a preface to the story of about 2 000 words: suddenly, some of the exposition that had worried me was less intrusive. I think the final draft is a better piece of writing. I’m going to repost the new text to give readers the chance to decide for themselves.