Thursday, February 19, 2009

Show Don't Tell: Part II

Okay, so here's where Cormac McCarthy and Virginia Woolf come into play. I happen to admire both of these writers tremendously. But, what happens when we compare the two? McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, is mostly full of showing. (For my formal definitions of showing and telling, check out yesterday's post.) In a few places we get insight into the protagonist's mind, but those moments are rare, and the action does a lot of the work. Without giving too much away, this is the story of a father, the protagonist, and son trying to survive in a harsh world. The threats and conflicts are mostly external: extreme weather, hunger, bad guys with guns. (There is one big internal struggle that I'll get to in a moment.) Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, on the other hand, is mostly telling. In just the first few pages, very little action happens, and yet we get paragraph after paragraph of internal thoughts. We find out what worries the characters, what amuses them, and what they think of the other characters. Here, the conflicts are psychological.

So, who's the stronger writer? McCarthy plays by the Show-Don't-Tell rule, so that's one point for him, right? Well, the answer is that it depends on the subject matter. Virginia Woolf tells because her subject matter, the characters' myriad of thoughts, would be invisible to us in any other way. We see physical signs of thoughts, but if a man, let's call him "The Thinker" is sitting at a bench with his chin in his hand, do we know exactly what he's thinking about? If a little boy is red in the face, do we understand that he's not frustrated because he lost the soccer game but because he understood for the first time that, even when a person tries their very best, sometimes they still fail? If your goal is to illuminate the internal thoughts of multidimensional and complex characters; if, like Woolf's Mrs. Ramsay, your character has a thousand thoughts about a thousand things while she is silently altering her son's pants, then chances are, to express those thoughts, you will need to tell. McCarthy's interests in The Road lay externally. He was portraying a changing world and the thin line between good and evil. For the most part, the struggles were so basic that they didn't need to be dissected in detail. So, for him, showing was more valuable because it made us experience the subject matter he was interested in. And, for the one struggle that was internal, McCarthy ended up using many telling lines to convey it. (Sorry for the vagueness, but I don't want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn't read it.)

I think the main reason the Show-Don't-Tell rule came into existence was because it's more engaging for a reader to have to observe physical signs and interpret them to the character's emotions, and being engaging keeps the reader interested in your work. But, if your range of emotions goes beyond simple sadness or anger or fear, then telling can be equally interesting because you are illuminating subtle thoughts and emotions that the reader might never even know existed. So, the key, I think, is to be interesting and to not be so obvious as to be boring. Chances are you will want to show sometimes and tell at other times depending on what you are writing about. It's a matter of choosing the best tool for the job.


  1. Good two-part post! I really like the way you dissected this debate. One which many of us go back and forth on daily! I have to admit that I am partial to the McCarthy school, but I can appreciate Woolf, too. I agree with your conclusion that are no absolute rules and that making choices is what it's all about.

  2. "Well, the answer is that it depends on the subject matter."

    I think you make a good point, and this is a topic I've thought about every since receiving the show-don't tell "commandment."

  3. Edithroad,
    I tend to favor showing as well, but being allowed to tell has freed up my writing quite a bit!

    Thanks! I think if nothing else, this advice should give you something to experiment with.

  4. I have never seen a rebuttal to the show-don't-tell rule before, much less a well reasoned one. Fantastic insight here.

    On the whole, I try to follow the show-don't-tell rule because that's what I like to read. I don't really care for Virginia Wolfe

    I like your point about subject depth - to show where it's a simple emotion for obvious reason, but to tell when thoughts need explained or the reader won't get them. Or at least, that's how I interpreted it. I'll be keeping that in mind as I write and revise. :)

  5. Anette! You have to like Virginia Woolf! Okay, you don't have to. But she is one of my favorites, so maybe give her another chance in ten years or something. I recommend To The Lighthouse. Who are your favorite authors?

  6. I think there is a difference in perspective used by each author, and each uses style to their own advantage.

    Woolf writes stream of consciousness, which brings certain liberties to the table that make the telling imperative. That's just the way the mind works.

    For McCarthy, the environment is as much a character in his works as the individual people are. The actions of the people show you the environment. This is true for the barren land in No Country For Old Men, and doubly so for the wasteland in The Road. He lets the environment build the motives and psyche of the characters, rather than expressing it through an internal dialogue. Granted, those are the only two McCarthy works I have read to date...

    Good posts, and thanks for stopping by My Daley Rant!


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