Recently, I took a workshop on Show Not Tell with a group of new writers. In preparing the session, it occurred to me that there are different ways to approach such a core subject, from the easy to reach to the damn near impossible to get hold of, and perhaps it’s a tutor’s duty to try for the latter as much as possible.
My struggle was about how to talk discuss this issue at a more fundamental level than normal. And ‘normal’ means, for example, that instead of Telling the reader your main character is really funny, you Show him doing and saying things that actually make the reader laugh. So the reader doesn’t get peed off that he isn’t laughing despite the author having told him he will be. But I felt there was more to this than being prescriptive about what constitutes a Tell or Show. Besides, great writers have no problem Telling in the most direct manner when it suits their purposes.
I thought about a biography I’d read recently which had been written from tapes made by the man in question in conversation with the author of the book. However, she’d included a prologue in which she repeatedly told the reader how ‘hilarious’ (amongst other qualities) her subject was. Yet, although the book was interesting, I didn’t find myself laughing at all. I suspect he’d been funny in the tape sessions, but the author didn’t have the skill to Show this in prose. Perhaps she felt she’d not succeeded and therefore tried to Tell us up front to fill in the missing Show for her.
About the same time, I bumped into the blog of a writer I knew from having shared a writers’ forum with him some time back. He was promoting his (quite expensive) online tutorial in short fiction writing, declaring that you would be working with a ‘master’ of the art. I didn’t recall him showing much mastership on the forum, so I checked out his latest credentials but all he had by way of short fiction writing credits were a few placings in magazines and journals that don’t pay anything. I then checked out his Writing Tips page and read his entry for short fiction: basically, a long list of Dos and Don’ts.
So, I found myself thinking that the first absurdity in creative writing tutoring is writers who haven’t really written anything creditable advising new writers on how to write. This, of course is a form of Telling rather than Showing in itself. And the next absurdity is the same people making lists of Dos and Don’ts. In short, a lot of writing advice is prescriptive on the one hand, and only deals with obvious issues on the other. Together, this constitutes a barrier to progression, I believe. Or to put it another way, and to use that old adage about polishing poo, what’s the point in perfectly Showing a turd? It’s still a turd and would probably be better vacated with a quick bit of Telling.
This led me to figure that the heart of this subject (and probably many others) might lie in how much a writer is willing to be both honest about himself and to take risks. At which point, I found myself thinking about the concept of Essence and Personality as taught by Gurdjieff, e.g.:
“Essence is the truth in man; personality is the false. But in proportion as personality grows, essence manifests itself more and more rarely and more and more feebly and it very often happens that essence stops in its growth at a very early age and grows no further. It happens very often that the essence of a grown-up man, even that of a very intellectual and, in the accepted meaning of the word, highly ‘educated’ man, stops on the level of a child of five or six. This means that everything we see in this man is in reality ‘not his own.’ What is his own in man, that is, his essence, is usually only manifested in his instincts and in his simplest emotions. There are cases, however, when a man’s essence grows in parallel with his personality. Such cases represent very rare exceptions especially in the circumstances of cultured life.”
(From ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ by P. D. Ouspensky, a book about the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff.)
The personality, then, is constantly Telling all about itself to other personalities. But everything it says is predictable, safe and conventionally detailed. Personality/Telling builds a self-satisfied protective shell around the essence, ensuring it rarely emerges to embarrass the host. So, I think the key to true Showing is for the author to force a way past his well-developed protective opinions, to retrieve some raw essence, cram it directly into his front brain, then do his utmost best to find the words it needs – so a reader can feel the same essence when reading them.
Which isn’t to say we don’t need a personality. Clearly, you’d not get through a working day if you couldn’t just say “Fine!” when your boss asks how you are, instead of providing him with a one-hour description of the multi-layered state of your essence. Similarly, your reader won’t get through a story that doesn’t have sufficient and comfortable personality props. But I also don’t believe your story will be memorable if it lacks essence altogether.
If Gurdjieff is right, then Show Not Tell becomes a matter of life or death for the writer. If he can’t Show essence in his writing, if he’s restricted to dead and derivative Telling, then how can he possibly teach anything?
What I said to the group was that Show not Tell is a quest, not a set of Dos and Don’ts. As a writer, you’re committed to fight for the essence of your story and characters, which means having the courage to search your own essence first. And the key to that search is in saying no – because the personality always wants it easy. So you say no to the first, second and probably a few more words that your personality fetches from its mental smartphone to ‘solve’ your story issues. There is an element of sheer forcing about this, a battle with the surface of yourself, the one you use most of the time just to survive. No wonder writers are strange. Why through choice would you want to fight yourself?
Because when you make those rare breakthroughs, all the years of practice and effort you’ve put in magically energise and make exciting and meaningful connections to the truth of character, story and uplifting prose.