Modern writing comes with certain common rules – “eliminate excess words,” “avoid adverbs,” “write what you know,” and the classic advice of “show, don’t tell.”
Sometimes “show, don’t tell” dovetails into “eliminate excess words.” There are many times you can remove exposition with a pretty good illustration.
Sometimes the showing goes in the other direction, becoming more wordy than the telling.
The process of reading should be as immersive and entertaining as possible.
I don’t really like to use the term “telling.” I prefer “explain-y.” There is a lot of explain-y writing out there, and I try not to add to it, as much as I can manage.
Fantasy and sci-fi, particularly through at least the 1950s, often has a tendency to be explain-y: during long stretches of information-heavy dialogue, “discovered” diary entries or documents that are provided in full with no filter for what’s needed, or detailed prose descriptions that establish or even interrupt a scene.
Partly this is because of the need to impart technical or historical overviews, build worlds, provide the often numerous characters with backgrounds, etc. When a writer has invested considerable time researching the technically possible or envisioning a world, there’s a natural tendency to want to ensure that a reader will see it all. But maybe that isn’t necessary, or even the point.
There are writers like Cormac McCarthy who employ a minimalist approach, and often do a lot of showing and not very much telling. In The Road McCarthy doesn’t even bother to provide names for the main characters – a tactic he’s employed before. Nor does he explain the cause of the original apocalyptic events. He knows his focus and the rest is extraneous.
When a character launches into a detailed dialogue explanation, it can be technically interesting, but not so much entertaining and not very authentic-sounding by modern dialogue conventions. The same for whatever delivery method an author chooses to employ to lead the reader firmly by the hand and point out this detail, and that detail, and that detail… Sometimes the quest for authenticity overtakes necessity.
Stephen King has often employed excerpts from “official documents” or “government hearings” in his books – from Carrie, to The Dead Zone, The Stand, and others. He treats these documents the way he does dialogue – condensing them down to only what’s needed. Contrast this with a recent bestseller from another author that employed a full eight pages of back-and-forth email correspondence – quoted verbatim and with considerable extraneous discussion. There’s no doubt the emails sounded authentic. This particular author (who is talented and who King himself praised) is an academic and infused his verbatim emails between academics with authenticity. Whether or not it was necessary, it was his choice. Every author faces conflicts between choice and necessity.
A series of books faces the challenge of whether or not to bring new readers up to speed who might come into the series in the middle or later, or even how much to remind existing readers of the series what has gone on before. I’ve faced this issue with the second and third books of my Winter Fade series. I mostly chose to simply allow the characters interact with one another because they already shared history and were quite comfortable. Yet I did feel the need to reflect upon certain things that had happened in the first book – simply because there were relevant events they affected in the other two books.
I think some writers take the whole “show, don’t tell” thing to heart in such a way that they’re concerned with how to give a character background. The truth is that character backgrounds can work quite well and enrich a story, giving depth and drawing in a reader. At least when done well enough. Stephen King has always employed character backgrounds – ranging from a few spare but incisive sentences to entire pages of background that establish a scene. It’s typically done in an entertaining enough fashion that I doubt many people have complained much about the telling.
I just finished reading Patricia Briggs’s Moon Called and she was effective at scattering background here and there throughout the entire first half of the book, small flashbacks and asides that added color to particular scenes. A different approach than what King usually takes. King has almost always established a character pretty much as they’re introduced. The Stand – usually the consensus favorite of his fans – launches almost immediately from the opening page into a 700-word background of Stu Redman’s entire history. But it’s interesting, because King is one heck of a good storyteller. He does the same with each of the many characters he introduces throughout the first half of the book, not in dribbles or drabbles, but in deluges that make each character immediately familiar to a reader.
For whatever it’s worth, I think these two great books I just mentioned – both of which I thoroughly enjoyed – have relatively weak ending climaxes. The bulk of the story for each book is so entertaining that the weak ending climaxes are forgivable. King even literally applied a deus ex machina in The Stand to annihilate the Las Vegas faction of Randall Flagg. Briggs had to do some very minor “explain-y” dialogue in her climax to make the antagonists’ motivations more clear for the reader. She covered a tremendous amount of ground in the first three-quarters of the story, establishing an entire world and the relations between its inhabitants very ambitiously and effectively for the amount of space she used. I think she could have spent just a slight bit more time on the minor characters who were the focus of the climax and whose motivations were central. But it’s a minor complaint and doesn’t detract from the re-readability of this book.
Laundry-list character descriptions are a common “show-don’t-tell” complaint, for very good reason. They’re often over-used. Still, they can be effective if they’re written in the right way. A great example is Anne Rice’s opening to The Vampire Lestat. She launches into Lestat’s self-description of his entire physical self, but it works.
It works because it is a form of showing. It reveals Lestat’s nature by means of his description. A reader immediately realizes how vain and yet self-confident he is:
I am The Vampire Lestat. I’m immortal. More or less. The light of the sun, the sustained heat of an intense fire — these things might destroy me. But then again, they might not.
I’m six feet tall, which was fairly impressive in the 1780s when I was a young mortal man. It’s not bad now. I have thick blond hair, not quite shoulder length, and rather curly, which appears white under fluorescent light. My eyes are gray, but they absorb the colors blue or violet easily from surfaces around them. And I have a fairly short narrow nose, and a mouth that is well shaped but just a little too big for my face. It can look very mean, or extremely generous, my mouth. It always looks sensual. But emotions and attitudes are always reflected in my entire expression. I have a continuously animated face.
Donna Boyd did something similar with the werewolves of her “Devoncroix Dynasty” books (which if anyone is a fan of Anne Rice’s writing might want to take a look at – The Passion, The Promise, and Renegade). These characters embody an arrogant confidence in themselves. They like to be seen and admired by humans (opening pages can be viewed here in Amazon’s search inside the book function).
Telling can be done in a clumsy or compelling manner, and it’s all up to the writer. It can be effective as background or in dialogue, or in the case of older science fiction it can feel dated by our modern tastes, populated by too many exclamation marks and too lengthy explanations that don’t feel like natural dialogue.
Writers should focus on doing what feels comfortable and what works for readers. There are too many effective styles out there to condense into anything other than that they entertain their readers. I do feel that “showing” is an essential part of any writer’s toolkit. But I also believe that “telling” can be and is always done well in the right hands. Just as long as it doesn’t go overboard and become “explain-y” – since the latter has a tendency to yank a reader’s interest away from a story.