If you ever had the benefit (or burden, depending on your experience) of taking a creative writing class, the “Show, not tell” Commandment needs no introduction. If not, I’ll save us all some words and just tell you what that is. Many of us remember “the Show and Tell” game from play school where we brought in a toy or project and then proceeded to talk about the object. Skip ahead about ten or fifteen years when we needed to stop crying and screaming and look for alternative forms of expression, like writing. One of the first lessons you learn while writing creatively is that you must “show” the reader your message via symbolism, dialogue, or scene in order to achieve great writing. And, simply telling your reader shows a literary laziness or a lack of complexity.
Okay, I can’t help it; I’ll show you an example of what I mean. In Chapter 3 of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck shows a land tortoise persisting through a harsh natural environment, which is likened to a war zone. He says of the land: “…every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement” (14). He then presents the tortoise’s unwavering persistence to traverse this competitive, unrelenting environment which changes from an agricultural field to an embankment and a newly paved road. The turtle fights its way up the concrete wall onto the hot concrete in the lane of an oncoming car. The female driver swerves into the other lane to miss the turtle. A truck then approaches in the opposite lane, and the male driver deliberately swerves to kill the turtle (the turtle is clipped but lives).
So, what does this all tell us? Steinbeck never explained himself; just gave us a scene, detailed down to the dust and the screech of the tires. It’s an allegory about the human experience. Humans are caught in the crossroads of an unforgiving natural world and a developing, industrial world that is just as harsh and unrelenting. The turtle’s struggle up the embankment and over the concrete wall of the road can represent the human struggle to climb the socio-economic ladder. Furthermore, we can infer that if we persist and achieve that feat, we are still at the mercy of people who are far more powerful than us. Furthermore, human nature is kind of a crapshoot since anyone can either be innately benevolent or malevolent. All we can do really is to stay positive and strong in order to survive through it all. And, what about a commentary about gender? Is he saying that women are genuinely more nurturing than men, who may be more destructive by nature?
That’s much more eloquent and insightful than just saying “damn, y’all, we screwed.” And much more long-lasting? I’ll go on a limb here and say that the turtle allegory will outlive about 99% of the posts on the “Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness” (which is what I’ve been calling Facebook lately).
That novel was published in 1939, and people today tend to refer to the days before smart phones as the “old days.” America was so different back then, except for the volatile relationship between citizens and capitalists, of course. So all the little things have changed since Steinbeck’s career, but not the major thing. Sure, most of us are lucky enough to have fancy phones or semi-decent cars or air-conditioners. But, in the end, we’re all broke with no fix in sight, no matter how hard we work.
So, I just wrote 503 words citing and analyzing a literary reference while generating a complex claim concerning inherent faults of economics by using historical context. And, all Steinbeck had to do was show a goddamn turtle trudge from point A to point B.
I’m not writing this blog post to claim it is better to show than to tell. It’s really all relative to what the writer wants to emphasize. But, one major difference between 1939 and 2018 is that people live at a much faster pace. Which makes me ask: Do writers have time to show? Do readers have time to dissect the allegory?
As an aspiring writer, I need to carve out time while juggling a full-time job (or at least try finding work as of now) and maintaining a happy household. Do I have time to show everything I want to? My current unpublished novel, Pro Publico Bono, is over 400 pages, and I did my best to show more than I told. It’s taken me a near decade to finalize it. At that rate, I have only about four more novels left in my life to write. I have more novels in me. The ideas are already backed up, like box cars in an overcrowded rail yard. After a while the hobos move on, but the cars remain, jointed with no engine awaiting a destination and depreciating over time. If I can squeeze out two paragraphs, it’s a good day. Nevertheless, these fictitious characters continue to bang on the inner walls of my skull, clamoring for the freedom that I have promised them. Do I just release them prematurely without giving them a proper foundation to survive in an oversaturated literary world? Should I bother with wonderful metaphors like Steinbeck’s tortoise and just tell the reader what I’m feeling? If I abandon the “show” all together, then I compromise the cherished author/reader autonomous relationship where the author presents an artistic piece so that the reader can use his/her intuition to figure things out in their own convoluted way. To be curt, writers who do not respect the intelligence of their readers have no business being writers.
As a reader, I need to carve out more time to read as well. If I get through four books a year, I’m doing well. Granted, I still have more time and energy to leisurely read now than in my college writing instructor days. But still, I can read double that if I had a little more time. I rarely watch television shows and movies anymore because I have prioritized writing and reading.
Better yet, it seems that many contemporary fiction writers tell awfully more than they show, and I’m including National Book Award winners and bestsellers. So why do we keep acting like showing is always better than telling when you can pick up a major publication or an acclaimed author, and yet the “fiction” is nothing but an insightful summary?
It is not a secret that creative nonfiction has been outselling fiction for a while. Perhaps there’s a correlation. Maybe readers want to hear the truth from the horse’s mouth, even if the horse turns out to be an ass. (To be clear, telling more than showing in non-fiction is 100% acceptable, in my opinion. I’m not implying that fiction writers are superior to non-fiction writers. All writers are egoistical asses, let’s face it.) Non-fiction triggers the human soul a little differently than fiction does; however, fiction presents itself as a manifestation of some unfortunate truths or fears (like The Jungle or 1984 or To Kill a Mockingbird) that non-fiction can’t.
I see it today even in titles of articles. I miss the days of clever titles that are practically a work of art on their own. Now they simply tell us what the article is about in a childish way. Seriously, the “Melancholy and Infinite Sadness” is loaded with articles titled “What you need to know about ______” or “What you didn’t know about _____ and what you can do about it” or “Why you should be mad about _____” or “13 Reasons why you should _____”. Hell, even the articles are more bulleted lists than refined content these days.
So, if the show must not go on, something wicked may be coming our way. Something far worse than shattering the ego of aspiring writers. Is this a moment when writers and readers are consenting to a less critical discourse? Is the capitalist leviathan now creeping into our minds and altering how it processes and produces written fiction? If that’s the case, than reading will simply be synonymous with consumption whereas writing will become nothing more than production.
Steinbeck chose his title for The Grapes of Wrath by selecting it from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The verse goes:
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.”
The truth is always better told when shown. And, Good Lord, I hope some sort of glory or salvation is coming our way because if not…damn, y’all, we screwed.