Showing and telling. Three words that send shivers of dread down the spines of new writers. Writers like me. The number of writing concepts I have yet to master is still daunting (setting, characterizations, dialogue, etc.), but at least those concepts make enough sense I know I’ll get them eventually. But showing and telling… Arg! Every time I think I’m beginning to grasp the concept, I come across another post or writing book with an example of telling that I don’t understand at all. For me, grasping the concept of showing is like grabbing a piece of fog. Very frustrating.
Lately, I’ve been reading Show Don’t Tell by Robyn Parnell, and while I’m certainly learning more about showing, I’m also beginning to understand why not all writers agree on what’s telling. Here’s an example from the book.
It was stormy.
Why is this telling? Because, according to Robyn, it’s not specific enough. Too generic. It's a conclusion by the writer. What does stormy mean? Where’s the proof? Each reader might interpret “stormy” differently. So Robyn offers up a showing alternative:
He looked out the kitchen window. Rain splattered against the glass and drilled a staccato beat on the iron roof. Thunder crashed overhead. His dog whined.
Okay, not bad. I think I see her point. Not sure I would have spotted “stormy” as telling on my own, but it’s a start. But then Robyn quotes a showing example from Frankenstein: City of Night by Dean Koontz and I get confused again.
Showered, feeling pretty in a summery dress of yellow silk, Erika left the master suite to explore the mansion.
Robyn explains why this is showing. “We probably all know what a summery dress looks like and therefore can imagine a summery dress made from yellow silk.” Hmmm….. I think I can imagine what “stormy” looks like just as well as I can a summery dress. Perhaps even more so. So why is “summery” not telling? It seems to me that it's just as much of a conclusion by Koontz as “stormy.” As Robyn would say, “Where’s the proof?" Are the shoulders bare? Is the dress covered with floral designs? How was the dress cut? I know the dress was made out of silk, but I’ve seen plenty of silk dresses that would not be considered at all summery.
So why isn’t “summery” just as telling as “stormy?” The short answer is: it is just as telling. Then why does Robyn consider one showing and the other telling? I suspect it has to do with Robyn’s perspective. She’s probably seen “stormy”so often it’s almost a cliché, while “summery” is unusual enough that it just feels more like showing.
I’m not saying Robyn is right or wrong. But I am beginning to understand why showing (and telling) is often in the eye of the beholder.
If anyone disagrees with me on this or has anything to add, please share your thoughts. I'd be most grateful. Everything I learn about showing and telling is worth its weight in gold.