Essays & Articles

Show Don’t Tell, and Other Literary Conventions That Deserve To Be Flouted

There is a sacred cow in the world of writing, and, when we are not milking it and taking it for granted, we refer to this holy bovine as “Show don’t tell.”


If we did not worship this cow, but rather went and got milk from it when we wanted to, it would be a beautiful and useful cow. To say, “It was cold outside,” is frequently not as good as, “Jerry went and got his thick goosedown parka and even rummaged through his wicker basket at the base of the closet to get his rather silly-looking wool hat.”


But not always. Sometimes “It was cold outside” is better.An even more extreme example: in A Tale Dark and Grimm, I am constantly turning to you, the reader, and telling you things. Things like, “No little children around, right? Like I asked? Are you sure? Check under the bed. At this point, they’re usually under the bed.” This technique is called “direct address,” and it is exactly the opposite of “show don’t tell,” because I am literally telling you what to expect, instead of just showing you. People who adhere strictly to “show don’t tell,” people who worship that sacred cow, would probably tell you not to do what I am doing.


But I disagree. Another name for a sacred cow is a “convention,” a rule that people come up with and agree upon. “Show don’t tell” is a literary convention. Someone thought it was a good idea, probably in the 1800s with the rise of the realistic novel, and everyone from my 6th grade writing teacher to my father at the dinner table has been repeating it ever since. Fooey and hokum. In A Tale Dark and Grimm I happily and consciously flout “show don’t tell” exactly because all conventions deserve to be flouted from time to time so people remember that they are arbitrary cultural rules invented for specific historical locales. Cervantes, Sterne, and Borges all tell as well as show. So, for that matter, do Homer and Shakespeare and Chaucer and Calvino.


A novel, in the end, is just black scribbles on a page. What kinds of rules should we have for that? The only rule is to affect the audience powerfully and, ultimately, positively. However you can do that, do it.


Don’t kill the cow–because it is a nice and lovely cow. But do not worship it. Drink its milk when you want it, and when you don’t, go down the street and order a cheeseburger.


Here’s a link to a conversation Elizabeth Bird hosted on her blog regarding direct address, or what she calls an “intrusive narrator.” My ideas come in part from that conversation, and from letters Elizabeth and I wrote to one another before the conversation went online.

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