Friday, February 26, 2010

Tell don't show

I know what you're thinking. I've gone completely mad. I'm about to talk about breaking one of the most fundamental rules of writing. You always show don't tell, or do you??

Back in my university days as a English major, I took a Shakespeare class, which I absolutely loved. My professor was big into dramatic plays, Henry the V, Lear, Hamlet etc. I on the other hand loved the comedies, especially The Taming of the Shrew. I remember for one essay question we had to take one play and compare different adaptations. I watched the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movie then I watched a stage production that someone had taped.

There were lots of differences, but one that has continually stuck out in my mind, is the wedding scene. In the movie they show Richard Burton arriving late to wed Ms. Taylor and in outlandish clothes. They show him acting badly during the ceremony. He pretends to fall asleep, has a coughing attack, and basically acts like a major louse.

In the play this all happens off stage. An actor comes in and recounts the events of the wedding to his companion. He describes Pertruchio's attire, and retells his horrible behavior. I have to say the actor who played, I think the character's name is Gremio, was fantastic. He had me laughing so hard I almost wept.

I know this is comparing movies to plays, which is something completely different than writing a novel, but do you think that there is ever a time when it is more advantageous to tell and not show.

What do you think? Or is this just one rule you should never break?

12 comments:

Candice said...

I took a Shakespeare class at BYU and my teacher's name was William O Shakespeare (no lie). I'm sure there are things you have to tell the reader in the interest of back story and character history. I think the ratio of showing to telling is the most important thing. In a play there is now way to tell the audience anything unless you have a narrator or do like they did in the second play and have a character recount it, so it makes sense to me that they would have to do that from time to time.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

All rules can be bent a little. And if they won't bend then just break them. :)

Jonathon Arntson said...

Like Karen said, but you have to do it in the right way. You can't just break a rule for breaking-a-rule's-sake.

Susan R. Mills said...

There are definitely instances when you should tell instead of show. I read an interview with Donald Maass recently (you know how much I respect him), and he stated something like this: a good writer knows when to tell instead of show. I guess the key is to figure out when to break the rule.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I think there is a time... it really depends on characterization. One of my character tells a lot... but it's how she shows her story so it works.

Jessie Oliveros said...

I think you have to judge the weight of a scene in your book. If it is best drawn out through details or through the mouth of one of your characters.

laurel said...

I think sometimes for pacing, it's necessary to tell rather than directly show, especially if your character is emotionally processing something that you did show. There's a wonderful chapter on this in _Self-Editing for Fiction Writers_ by Renni Browne and Dave King

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I like the way Jessie put it, so...what she said! :-)

patti said...

Sigh. The old story about mastering things b/f you do your own thing resonates for a lot of these rules.

Like Mondrian mastered impressionism before he started his strange abstraction--which now sells for millions!!

Have a great weekend. Love this blog!

Patti

lotusgirl said...

You totally have to break it sometimes. If you didn't most novels would be 300K or longer. I've read some authors say the worst advice is show don't tell. While it is great advice to show actions and scenes, you shouldn't do it to the exclusion of all telling. Telling moves the story forward.

jenniferneri said...

Intersting post...but I tend to agree with everyone that there is a time for everything. it's knowing when that time is.

Daisy Whitney said...

I think telling can be done sparingly if it's told in very funny dialogue!