Thursday, 28 September 2017

Ink Tip: Is "Show, Don't Tell" False Advice?

A few weeks ago, I read an article by Cecilia Tan which tore apart the most well-known piece of writing advice: show, don't tell.  She pointed out the inherent assumption behind it, namely that the writer's experience is universal.  But we know that isn't true, even within North American culture.  Tan makes a convincing argument that "show, don't tell" is actually an exclusionary tactic, used to regulate genre fiction as less than literary fiction, and silence diverse voices.

I've experienced genre-shaming first hand on several occasions since I began to write.  After all, I write romance, which everyone knows is trite, formulaic and done to titillate bored housewives, and I write speculative fiction, which is only read by nerds who can't hack the real world.  (Everyone got the sarcasm?  Okay, good, we can move on.)  

However, I hadn't thought about how "show, don't tell" assumes a false universal experience, one that shuts out diverse stories.  After all, if someone doesn't fit into the accepted box (which sadly tends to be white, male, cishet, and middle to upper class), then they have to "tell" in order to give the reader context.  That "telling" can then be used as an excuse by publishers and editors to refuse the manuscript, citing that it's bad writing.

But is the advice itself actually bad?  Like most writing advice, the short form is incomplete.  The full advice should actually be: "Show, don't tell, except when telling works better for the story."  Showing something is more emotionally impactful to the reader, but telling speeds up the pacing.  So there are times when telling the reader something is actually the right choice for a narrative, just as there are times when showing is the preferable choice.

For example, if I want to establish a character as cruel, then telling the reader that the character is a "bad guy" won't have the same gut-instinct as showing him/her doing something cruel.  But if I'm establishing why the stakes are high for an intergalactic conference, that's something that I need to tell the reader because showing it would require a couple of Tolkienesque bulky appendices detailing the history and interactions of the various cultures.  

Good writers are able to tell the reader information in a way that feels natural and doesn't interrupt the flow of the story.  That's an important skill and one that shouldn't be dismissed.

I'll admit that I'm used to dismissing literary fiction, which I generally find to be dry, patronizing and thinly-disguised commentary.  I like genre fiction of all types because I find well-written genre fiction to be engaging, character driven and thought-provoking.  So I'm not particularly bothered by the idea that "show, don't tell" discriminates between genre and literary fiction.  I'm also not bothered by the idea that the creative writing courses and Masters of Fine Arts programs focus on literary fiction.  If that's what a person wants, go for it.  If you want the other stuff, there are plenty of other groups that will help to teach an aspiring author the necessary craft.

But if "show, don't tell" is being used to shut down diversity, that makes me angry.  Because publishers should be encouraging diverse voices.  It should be something that they actively seek out and promote.  Now, I don't have the personal experience in the publishing industry to say one way or another if that is the case, but given that people of colour, LGBTQ+, and those with disabilities have repeatedly shared that they have trouble getting contracts, I suspect there are challenges that need to be addressed.

Show, don't tell is still a valid piece of advice (if overly simplistic).  Like all writing advice, it's one that writers have to learn when to ignore.

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