The Principle Behind and the Application of Both RUE and Show, Don’t Tell

As my writing skills evolve, I continually question how I use various techniques. Most of the time, this blog conveys what I’ve learned to you. Today’s post is more about working through a technical issue I’m having than about telling you what you should do (Unless, of course, I end up, through the process of writing the post, resolving my problem. In that case, however, I probably would have went back and edited the preceding sentences, so ignore this parenthetical interruption which I’m leaving in solely on the off chance that someone will find it amusing and now have taken way to far…)

Both Resist the Urge to Explain and Show, Don’t Tell are based on one important and valid underlying principle — no matter how much you trust the source, no amount of telling you (as, ironically, I’m doing with this statement) will make you internalize a truth as much as coming to a conclusion on your own. Both the aforementioned pieces of sage advice instruct you to do the following:

Provide evidence to your reader to let him deduce the truth behind your words.

As I’ve alluded to above, I find this principle pretty darn solid. If you’re a beginning writer, you’d do well to take both “rules” as the gospel truth until such a time as you can discern the inherent problems in taking them too far. I, unfortunately, am past that particular point and need to make a decision on how to proceed.

The question at hand is:

Exactly when are explaining and telling okay?

Some would say, “Never!” In response, I’d bring up scene transitions as an example of a place where telling is perfectly valid. Obviously, there are ways to move from scene to scene without telling, but, in my opinion, it’s misguided at best to eliminate one reasonable method just because it violates a “rule.”

Some considerations:

1. It’s hard to think of a piece of popular genre fiction that does not in some way utilize telling or explaining beyond just scene transitions. While I agree that “Everyone else is doing it, Mom” is not the world’s greatest argument, it’s instructive that other authors have achieved success despite not strictly adhering to the “rules.”
2. Clarity is a huge issue if you don’t tell/explain. No matter how well or how much or how meticulous you are with your presentation of the evidence, someone out there, maybe even twelve someones, aren’t going to believe that OJ is guilty (I realize the fallacy of the analogy; evidence in that trial was not in any way, form, or fashion presented well).
3. I firmly believe that the best way to achieve immersion is to show and not explain. On the other hand, I do not believe that short, isolated bursts of telling or explaining necessarily break immersion. It’s not like a reader is going along with the flow and, suddenly, reads a quick telling sentence that causes him to step out of the book. Rather, the effect is more neutral in that the technique simply doesn’t immerse him more. Granted, the author must be careful here. Too much telling certainly can break immersion by becoming boring, and hammering a point multiple times is a quick way to make the reader put down the book and say, “Enough already; I understood it the first time!”

I’d love some input in the comments section on these thoughts. Thanks!


5 thoughts on “The Principle Behind and the Application of Both RUE and Show, Don’t Tell

  1. I’ll probably always be struggling with, “don’t show, let the reader deduce.” To me the nuances of writing (like knowing when to Explain/Show, instead of letting the reader deduce) is a great deal like learning to play the piano. Hitting the correct note isn’t the same as knowing when to create a pause, use the pedals, pound the keys, or touch them with feathery fingers. That level of mastery takes more than simple instruction–for me it requires a deeper connection to the music. By no means would I purport mastery of the piano, I can only compare the frustration of learning how to write well with the same frustrations I encountered with learning to play the piano. There are some things no amount of “book learning” can teach, but in order to find these things, it’s important to struggle along learning what can be taught (like how to read the music), then setting aside time for practice. That’s where I am right now–in the practice phase.

  2. ” In that case, however, I probably would have went back and edited the preceding sentences,…”
    You mean “gone” back, right? 🙂

  3. I feel that predominantly showing runs the risk of being too artsy and even crossing over into purple prose territory. At the end of the day, telling is a way for both the reader and the author to “take a break”. It’s a little “lazy”, but that doesn’t make it bad for precisely the reason that sometimes people want to relax and be lazy.

    Some books you read like you would eat a bag of popcorn. Others take the nuances, preparation and rumination of a fine-dining experience. Finding the balance and creating something that is both enjoyable on its own merits and not requiring too much investment is integral.

  4. Even if you are showing, you are ultimately “telling” the reader what to pay attention to. I think there are ways to emphasize what’s important information or descriptions that are important. Exposition is useful if done sparingly, but the balance depends on the story, characters, and aim of the novel. I’m still working out my own word chemistry.

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