Show-and-Tell

One of the very first—perhaps the first—formal rule I learned for writing was “show, don’t tell.” (The only contender for the spot is “write what you know.”) I’m betting that’s a common experience, and it’s rare these days that I think consciously about either piece of advice—but this week I kept running into various kinds of aggressive story-“telling,” in ways that brought me back to those adolescent workshops and made me think about how early advice still affects my writing instincts, for better and for worse.

I noticed it first in Riverdale—the CW’s dark-and-gritty take on Archie Comics, which I’m very invested in despite its target audience of…I’ll say fifteen-year-olds. Despite adult themes and a mixed audience, one of the main signs that the show is still aimed at people who are young enough to still be learning their archetypes is the writing, which tends to be more than a little ham-fisted. The characters say everything—everything—out loud, making flat masks for themselves out of what could or should be narrative subtext. (Easily more than half of Jughead’s lines are some declarative variation on “I’m weird”; “I don’t fit in”; “Sardonic humor is just my way of relating to the world.”) Characters talk about being “from the wrong side of the tracks” or “the girl next door,” and irony is almost always thin on the ground. (Benefit of the doubt: Riverdale is playing with, complicating a legacy of, these tropes and clichés. We’ll see.)

Also this week, I saw the Decemberists in concert—and had a moment of humility in my Riverdale mockery as I remembered my own teen years, listening obsessively to the Decemberists and admiring—as literature—the declarative “telling” of their songs. (The speakers of Decemberists songs tend to turn up, announce their profession [chimney sweep, engine driver, crane wife], avow a bulleted list of their life experiences, and die, usually by drowning.) I hadn’t put this together before, but this is still a kind of stagey (operatic, maybe?) storytelling I find compelling in song—the characters in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 narrate their own physical movements and expressions as well as their motivations (“Pierre paces the room several times in silence / Anatole sits at a table, frowning and biting his lips”), and the device is as powerful to me in The Great Comet as it is cringe-worthy in Riverdale—and in my own college-workshop stories (and many of my current first drafts).

Though this isn’t purposeful, I don’t tend to read a huge amount of hard science fiction—maybe because I cut my teeth on Star Trek, I’m generally more than happy to hear that they’ve figured FTL travel “somehow” and just get on with the story. So when I read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, I was hugely struck by the amount of “telling” that went into establishing the book’s ethos. Stephenson does more than due diligence explaining his world’s technology to the reader—usually by having characters explain it to each other, which occasionally necessitates narrative backflips to justify why one astrophysicist or another has forgotten something. In general though it’s seamless and successful, since by the time Stephenson gets to the most wildly speculative bits of the plot we trust him as someone who has done more homework than we have. It’s somewhere between technobabble and the declarative “telling” of, for instance, Little House on the Prairie. Stephenson and Laura Ingalls Wilder share a “how-to”/documentarian tone that establishes authority and lends plausibility to a speculative plot or to the assertion of a memoir.

This all interests me because of the other half of the shitty-first-drafts I map out—the ones that aren’t too “telling” but rather too empty of it, obfuscated and mealy-mouthed because I’m too wary of “telling” and so don’t spell anything out. These drafts end up muddied and insubstantial, and revision is a matter of laying foundation after putting up the wallpaper—i.e., in most cases, starting over.

Of course, it’s complicated. “Show, don’t tell” is more useful than it is limiting; it’s a good rule of thumb and I’m glad I learned it (and early). But the various extreme examples of outliers I’ve encountered recently have me thinking about when it fits the form and function of a piece to eschew it.