Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fourth admonishment: 'show don't tell' is horse shit

"Show, don't tell" is certainly the most dangerous and misinterpreted advice given to young writers. It's well meaning, but nevertheless harmful. It is the enemy of "voice," and it altogether strips the role of the author from the finished prose. In essence, it turns Pommard 1er Cru into two-buck Chuck.

There are much better, albeit more complex, ways to encourage writers to focus on story movement, on pressing the narrative along, on cautioning them not to linger unnecessarily or stray off track. But ours is a culture programmed to love taglines, and "show, don't tell" has become a brand unto itself. It represents all of the bland, voiceless fiction that plugs the arteries of our literary world. I've never done a serious study, but it strikes me that the phrase has arisen out of the paranoia in the 50's and 60's that television and film would compete with reading and thus shrink the audience for fiction. The thinking is that readers are busy people, and they don't want anything to pop the "bubble of reality," this fantasy land created by the plot of a novel, lest they grow distracted and turn to the Great American Lobotomy Tube or to other, more spare writing that doesn't slow down their busy lives. If an author dares to bog readers down with subtle description, or to "tell" them the story in the inflated language of a narrator's voice rather than simply "show" them the bare bones of the action, then the readers will turn away.

This is bullshit. Readers read because they enjoy being "told" a story. Those who want to skip right to the movie will probably not purchase the novel in the first place. Some authors resonate with readers, and some don't, but stripping the prose down to action alone is rarely the right answer. People read specific writers over a long period of time because they've become attuned to the author's "voice," or in other words, the way the author "tells" the story.

Stories are told. Movies are shown. "Show, don't tell," I realize, is a rule. And it is a requirement of any serious writer to break every rule as soon as it's codified. But I still hear people I respect flogging this phrase, and I'm sure they don't realize the damage they're doing by encouraging incipient writers to turn away from their voices in favor of "showing" the naked skeleton of the plot. I understand that some tastes prefer such twiggy, undernourished storytelling, and that's fine. (Note, I don't put Carver or Hemingway in this category...what they were doing was lush and altogether different from "show don't tell") Taste in storytelling is subjective much in the same way that some men prefer women who look like that emaciated corpse Ann Coulter, while others...Trout included...require a little more. Some people...most in fact...prefer to be "told" a story. There is a reason my girls, when small, put away their video tapes and much preferred to hear Daddy Trout "tell" them a story, complete with my embellishments, exaggerations, asides, tangents, gestures and affectations. When you ask a young writer to "show and don't tell" you are asking her to strip out all of these things that make live storytelling so dynamic. Some say that's a good thing. I say not.

My good friend John Schultz has oft lamented the loss of the author's voice, and he's studied the issue more than I. Once, while antelope hunting in Outer Mongolia in the mid-70s, John and I weathered a three-day storm in our yurt, railing about the issue while the tent walls flapped in the wind. Incidentally, John founded one of the better writing programs in the country with a central platform being the flabbiness of the "show, don't tell" mantra. While I still find the notion of the MFA program dubious (namely because one such program has hired me), John's outfit is as good as it gets.

This diatribe is the result of an office visit this morning by Yu, a promising student. She's shown hints of a magnificent voice through spare, hesitant prose. I at first thought it was the fact of English being her second language that was restraining her, but in truth it was that she was struggling to adhere to all of the "show, don't tell" advice she's heard over the years from teachers, writers and those write-by-numbers rulebooks that one often finds in the do-it-yourself section of the bookstore. Still, the exuberance of her voice was unwilling to heed such restraint, busting through the seams of her skeletal plots. When I explained the nonsensical nature of that advice much in the same language used above, awareness crept into her big, honey-brown eyes. She smiled, covering her mouth with her hand. When I finished she leapt out of her chair and wrapped her arms around my neck, kissing me wetly on my cheek. I was surprised because her impulsive gesture of affection didn't fit my (probably racist) stereotype of demure Asian women, but that's another subject entirely.

In any case, I'm thrilled at her breakthrough and eagerly await Yu's next manuscript in which she promises to "tell" me a story. For the rest of you, I urge you to abandon that hollow-eyed, Ann Coulterish, meth-hound, bare-bones writing. I urge you to push your prose to the purple, stray from your skeletal plot on the most tangential and voluptuous of diversions just to see what the hell else is out there, feel free to flash back and then flash backwarder, interject your omniscient, God-like voices with impunity, pop that supposed "bubble of reality" and grab your reader by his ears, planting a big, wet storyteller's kiss on his forehead.

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