Show and Tell

Let me tell you all about my character.  I will tell you all about his feelings, all about his moods, his likes and dislikes and how he reacts when things don’t go his way.  I will tell you what he is thinking, and why he is thinking it.  I will tell you about what an interesting individual he is, and all the things that make him interesting.  I will tell you all of this, but I will not show you.

Does that sound like something you’d be interested in reading?

No, I didn’t think so.  Not to me either.  That’s because telling is, well, just not that interesting.  If it was, wouldn’t the most engaging people in the world be people who walked around saying in a bland voice, “I’m quite happy today” or “I’m having a terrible day and I feel awful”?  Wouldn’t it be perhaps even normal to walk around with little signs announcing our moods and what we had for breakfast?  Wouldn’t it be the norm to sign onto a social network online and update a “status” with some message about—

Okay, well, looks like that rabbit hole is already explored.  Maybe that’s exactly why it’s possible for something like the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull to be published.  And not just published, but actually get on the New York Times Bestselling list.

Dude’s got something for him – awesome first name.

Alright, I will admit that the Fablehaven series is an incredibly creative story.  The basic premise is that magical creatures like fairies and satyrs and trolls and dragons and so on do really exist in our world, but in order that they might be preserved from destruction, they are kept hidden by magical means.  So, what looks like a butterfly might actually be a fairy in disguise, or a horse might actually be a centaur.  Only by consuming certain substances (like, no joke, the milk from a giant magical cow called a “milch cow”) can a normal human see through such disguises.  These creatures all live on special preserves, magically warded to keep normal humans out, watched over by human caretakers who have taken an interest in magical creatures.  One such preserve is Fablehaven, where Kendra and her younger brother Seth, whose grandparents are the caretakers, are first introduced to this magical world.

The stories in the series progress through quite a lot of creative framework, and Brandon Mull, the author, has really done a fabulous job of crafting an interesting story.  There is a war between the creatures of light and creatures of dark, and humans are on both sides.  Deception plays a major role, there are treasure hunts, time travel, romance, and all manner of adventure.  But there’s one really big problem – too much telling.

See, if Brandon Mull had built a house, it would have been a fabulously interesting and creative design, but inside it would be terrible wallpaper.  So much potential…

Let me give you an example. (minor spoiler alert)  Kendra, the main character, is going to go to a meeting with a group of people called the Knights of the Dawn.  She is told again and again prior to the meeting how everyone in the Knights of the Dawn is practiced at deceit and subterfuge, because it is necessary in their line of work.  She is told that every one of them will be slyly attempting to pry secrets from her about who she is, where she comes from, and what special skills she possesses.  She is told that she will have to be on her guard at all times in every conversation, and that she should make a point of sticking close to her compatriots to avoid getting into something she can’t handle.

She arrives at the meeting, and the first person she meets walks up and begins gushing all kinds of details about who she is and what her latest mission was.  She literally asks just one question, “And you are?” of Kendra, to which Kendra replies with only her name.  And then the conversation ends.

The rest of the episode with the Knights of the Dawn involves Kendra having not one more conversation with anyone that we’re not explicitly told is trustworthy.  There is, however, a speech by the leader of the organization which begins with him explaining why, despite their normal practice, it is prudent for him to divulge a bunch of information that normally they would keep hidden, followed by him playing the deus ex machina for a couple of pages.

This organization has all the subtlety of a group of 13 year old girls.

“I bet she has no idea that we’re talking about her, because we’re so very discreet!”

But we’re supposed to believe they are very subtle because Brandon Mull told us they are! Again and again throughout the series we’re told not only that this organization is into secrecy, but also how our main characters react to and feel about that secrecy.  Yet, not once do we see a single example of all this secrecy.

This is “telling” at its worst.  When you want your reader to believe that something is true, but you cannot show them that it is true, so you just tell them that it is, you have not done your job as a writer.  No matter how interesting the framework, you’ve slapped hideous wallpaper all over the inside of your house, and it’s just not much to look at any more.

Let me give, as a counterpoint, an example of “showing”:

“Magnus Ridolph sat on the Glass Jetty at Providencia, fingering a quarti-quartino of Blue Ruin. At his back rose Granatee Head; before him spread Milles-Iles Ocean and the myriad little islands, each with its trees and neo-classic villa. A magnificent blue sky extended overhead; and beneath his feet, under the glass floor of the jetty, lay Coral Canyon, with schools of sea-moths flashing and flickering like metal snowflakes. Magnus Ridolph sipped his liqueur and considered a memorandum from his bank describing a condition barely distinguishable from poverty.”

Consider what we are being shown here – whoever this Magnus Ridolph is, he apparently enjoys opulence and luxury.  How do we know?  The description is enough; he is obviously at some swanky resort, a place only people with money go.  Yet, at the same time, we know now that he is on the verge of losing it all, if he hasn’t already, not because the author tells us he is, but because he shows us by describing the situation and the memorandum.  We also see – we’re not told, we’re shown – that Magnus Ridolph is able to approach this situation with some amount of steadiness, still drinking his expensive beverage despite the circumstances.

That passage is from The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph, by Jack Vance, a collection of short stories about a space-faring private detective.  Jack Vance is a master in the art of showing, and there may be no better way to grasp that art than by reading his works. But I digress…

Here’s the mastery of Jack Vance’s showing: We know at a glance that this story is science fiction, because it has a man pushing a button, and we see a strange alien stone creature thing holding a primitive spear. Rah.

Is it really fair, though, to compare a work like Jack Vance’s, written to an adult audience, to someone like Brandon Mull, writing a YA novel?  Well, admittedly, comparing Mull’s first foray into the world of publishing with the work of an acclaimed master like Vance is maybe unfair. However, I think that the concept of showing rather than telling is absolutely critical in YA.

When you tell but do not show, you are essentially sending the message that the reader should believe something that contradicts the evidence before them.  Is that the way young adults should be taught to look at the world?  Think about the implications for their relationships.  “I’m your friend, and I really care about you, even if I don’t do anything nice to you or for you.” — “I love you, even if I do horrible things to you.” — “You can trust me, really, you can, even though I’ve betrayed you before.” – “Your parents aren’t looking out for your best interests, they’re just trying to control your life, so don’t listen to them.”

Those may sound like kind of extreme examples, but they’re the kinds of things that all too often young people hear.  When they begin to look at the world through the lens of “believe what you’re told, even if it’s not shown”, then more and more they are going to believe stuff like that.  If YA literature is as much about teaching young people about the world and life as it is about entertaining – and I believe it is – then we have to pay attention to the subtle messages as well as the overt.

Now, you might say I’m overthinking this, overanalyzing it, and being way too hard on poor Brandon Mull. I know my wife would say I am. And you and my wife are right, I really am.  After all, it’s just a book, right?  Amateurish? Perhaps. Is that some big moral thing? No.

So feel free to ignore all that schlock about the deeper message, and just think about this – good storytelling is about showing your reader what is happening, and letting them learn to understand it by that.  Whole college classes are built around looking at literature and saying, “What is this character thinking and feeling here?” precisely because the author did not tell you the answer… so that you could discover it on your own.  Don’t deprive your reader of that opportunity. Let your reader be fully engaged by showing, not telling.

Let me close with something that is to Brandon Mull’s credit: He does actually know how to show, not just tell.  The opening chapters of the third book are excellent examples of showing and not telling.  One character witnesses a society of minuscule fairykind being completely dismantled by a satyr, and ponders the meaning from their perspective.  Another character sits in a dungeon mulling over the meaning of a traitor’s last words.  These scenes are packed with meaning that does not come from Mull telling us anything. It’s all show. In other words, he is capable of it. And so are you.

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6 thoughts on “Show and Tell

  1. Interesting connection there — that tell-not-show wires the brain to accept what is told and not look for evidence. Of course, I would counter that the writing of tell-not-show more encourages laziness on part of both writer and reader, which may lead to your “imaginative” examples.

    It’s lazier for the writer to simply tell something — it’s easier, after all. It’s way easier for the reader as well. “What’s going on? The writer’s not telling me. I don’t get it.”

    You’ve written a lot to digest here. The “show don’t tell” rule is, of course, huge. (It’s also incredibly difficult to pull off in microfiction!) I don’t know if I agree with your big jumps — but it’s definitely worth mulling over.

      1. It would be interesting to see — what books are big on showing and which are big on telling? Having read the first Twilight book, for instance — is that big on showing or telling? I’d say both, actually, from my memory. For instance, we see Bella’s clutziness pretty often — a volleyball game springs immediately to my mind. We see how amazing the vamps are in the baseball game, even as the narrator keeps telling us they’re amazing.

  2. I think that your points about young adults today are very true. What you read affects how you act, talk, view the world, and generally live. Young adults are still impressionable. Teaching them the wrong things, though seemingly harmlessly, could wreak havoc.

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