Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Does Matter
This article by George Saunders is the most gorgeous description of how a writer writes, and why, and why it matters. It’s too good to do justice by summarising it here* so I am just recommending you read it. It really deserves to be read somewhere quiet while you’re sitting comfortably with a nice cup of tea – but even on a busy tube with wet feet it should make you feel happy, and give inspiring and interesting insight into the process of writing a novel.
*Having said that … I will say I think it’s one of the best justifications I’ve read for the old, clichéd, but still important adage ‘Show, don’t tell’ – which is really, at heart, a clarion call for specificity in your writing. The less specific you are, the more you need to communicate meaning and emotion through clunky ‘factual’ statements.
But Saunders elucidates another reason it’s so important not to overtell. It’s about trusting your reader – trusting her intelligence, trusting her ability to understand what you’re trying to say by honing and revising your writing to the point at which it ‘welcomes her in’:
“She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. [It] is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: ‘No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.'”
It is the novels written this way that stay with me, make me feel something, feed my soul, somehow. It’s never those in which the writer spoonfeeds me information, description and detail, not allowing me to interpret anything on my own – whether out of kindness (wanting to help me out) or disdain (dismissive of my ability to understand).
Saunders’s article – in his characteristically unpretentious way – highlights exactly what it is that enables novels, particularly, to transport us to different worlds and viewpoints and time. So a 19th-century Russian count, long dead, can make you cry and ache with love. Or, for me at least, a 58-year old American writer of short stories can make you long to read a novel set in a graveyard and narrated by sarcastic ghosts.