A Writing Lesson: In Defense of “Telling”

Selection and Arrangement.

Remember those two words. I’ll come back to them, but first a quick story:

A year-and-a-half ago, I went to a conference for marketing professionals. The keynote speaker — a very senior executive at a instantly-identifiable brand — talked for an hour about the importance of storytelling. The main message: “Show, Don’t Tell.”

I couldn’t help but notice the ironies. First, the term ‘storytelling’ has the word ‘tell’ in it. We never call our friends and say, “Do you have five minutes? I need to show you a story.”

Secondly, the keynote speaker relied entirely on telling the audience what it should do. In other words, the presentation was not an example of its own ideal. It came off as “do as I say, not as I do.” This irony is most obvious in the rule itself. The statement “Show, Don’t Tell,” contradicts its own advice.

The problem isn’t that the presentation should’ve had more ‘showing.’ The problem is that the advice itself is useless. “Show, Don’t Tell,” is a rule that only exists in Introduction to Writing courses. Even then, it is meant as a guideline for novice writers, not an absolute rule.

Telling is fundamental to stories. If you don’t believe me, grab a book, any book. I promise you it has copious amounts of ‘telling’ in it. Now take a look at most blog posts about storytelling, including this one. It is rife with ‘telling.’ When I wrote, “I went to a conference,” is that not closer to telling than showing?

The good news is that you can avoid the embarrassment of saying “Show, Don’t Tell” by making a small mental adjustment. It requires you to abandon the outdated and incoherent idea that ‘showing’ is inherently better than ‘telling.’ It is not. You need both. When you can let go of the notion that one has more value than the other, you’re on your way to more effective writing.

The next step is to adopt better terminology. Back to our two words from the beginning: selection and arrangement.

As a professional, I know that good writing requires both showing and telling. One form of rhetoric is not better than the other. They require different techniques, with different functions, to support different writing strategies. So when I write, the question is not “how can I show this instead of tell it?” The question is, “what should I show? what should I tell?”

The answers to the latter questions involve selection and arrangement. What parts of a story should I select to be shown? What parts are better told? And how can I arrange the different parts to achieve my goal?

Selection and Arrangement in Practice

A lot of my thinking about this subject was prompted by The Rhetoric of Fiction, a classic text by scholar Wayne Booth. Although his examples are drawn from literary fiction, the concepts are useful for any type of dramatic storytelling.

One of the questions is, why should you tell a reader something instead of show it? An answer: you may have time or space limitations.

For instance, let’s say you ask me to write a story about two people in love. I write the sentence “John was so in love.” You send it back with the comment “Don’t tell us he’s in love. Show us he’s in love.”

I might respond by citing Booth and his commentary on Boccaccio’s Decameron. Here he is talking about the story of Monna and Federigo and how they fall in love:

“It is not enough to show [Federigo’s] virtues through his actions … Unless the story is to be lengthened unduly with episodes showing that he is worthy, in spite of his extravagance, the narrator must give us briefly and directly the necessary information about his true character. He is therefore described … as ‘gallant,’ ‘full of courtesy,’ ‘patient’ and most important of all, as ‘more in love than ever before.’”

And this:

“What is important here is to recognize the radical inadequacy of the telling-showing distinction in dealing with the practice of this one author. Boccaccio’s artistry lies not in adherence to any one supreme manner of narration but rather in his ability to order various forms of telling in the service of various forms of showing.”

Examples and a Writing Exercise

Now let me try to make this more practical for the marketing and communications out there. Let’s say you sell a dog collar with an embedded GPS. Take a look at this:

  • John is 39-years-old, married with two kids, a house in the suburbs and a golden retriever named Sweetie. In the fall, he goes duck hunting, and Sweetie goes with him. She wears a PawTracker collar embedded with a GPS so that he always knows where she is.
  • John is 39-years-old, married with two kids, a house in the suburbs and a golden retriever named Sweetie. When the leaves turn to orange, and the air turns crisp, he wakes before dawn, brews a thermos-worth of coffee and loads his gear in the truck. When it’s time to go, he grabs his rifle. Sweetie waiting by the door, wags her tail. She leans eagerly forward while John slips on a PawTracker collar, so when she’s out on her own, he knows where she is.
  • John wakes before dawn, steps quietly through the house so as not to wake his wife and kids. But Sweetie, sensing his movement, trots to the door, wagging her tail in anticipation. They’re about to go duck hunting. He puts on her PawTracker 2000 collar.

The point is not to say which of these is better or worse (none are all that good, I know). The point is to observe how 1) each example relies on telling and showing to build the bare bones of a story and 2) how showing and telling are matters of choice (that is, selection and arrangement).

My writing exercise for you: Take the facts and sequence of events in my made-up example and rewrite them. Ask yourself, in what ways can I choose to show and tell in various ways?