Show and Tell

Had a good conversation at work today regarding the idea of showing vs. telling in writing. Obviously I’m just some Johnny Ten-Thumbs from the Wisconsin backwater, but I’m going to put forth the notion that showing over telling oversimplifies the idea.

On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got your eyes. They see things, they make sense of the world, they take in all the visual stimulus that bounces off of your face all the live-long day. On the other end of that spectrum, you’ve got your brain, which is able to process that data as well as a billion other things, from the abstract to the concrete. The way writing works doesn’t necessarily lie in translating the sight end of the spectrum to the brain end of the spectrum. Instead, it relies on some kind of wizardry that occurs between the two in which we say the right incantation and make a picture appear in the reader’s mind.

Obvious, right? Maybe. I can be a slow learner. But for me, the moments with the most impact don’t occur with a description that’s utterly concrete. For example:

“The inside of the van smelled like pee.”

Doesn’t stack up against:

“The inside of the van smelled like it doubled as a German piss-dungeon on the weekends.”

Not a great example, I grant you, but it gets the point across. For my money the second example wins.

A really great example of what I’m talking about can be found in the Sharon Olds poem, The Pope’s Penis. And, again, though I’m an unpublished bimbo, I’ll tell you a secret that no one ever told me: if you want images, go read a lot of poetry. Not that prose writers don’t have awesome images. Of course they do. But fantastic imagery are the bread and butter of a poem, and Sharon Olds makes some damn good bread and butter, even if it does put a picture of the pope’s penis in your head.


2 thoughts on “Show and Tell

  1. Is one of those really more concrete than the other? Pee is a concrete object. A piss dungeons is a concrete object. For my money — and trust me, I have a lot of money — the difference is in how the concrete idea is put forth. Piss dungeon is a lot more interesting than pee. It gives the story pee-zazz (great pun, I know). It’s more the difference between transparent prose and prose that is interesting.

    • Maybe so, but despite what we may wish, Piss Dungeons aren’t something that’s so ingrained to the human mind that a reader will immediately find that to be an accessible comparison. So it’s more than just interest level. It’s also more than just what’s concrete and what isn’t, which is the point of the post. You dong.

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