‘Telling, not showing’ is a criticism that authors may sometimes hear about their work. It means that the author is telling the reader what happened, or is happening, rather than showing what happened through dialogue and/or incident.
Those words ran through my mind last Saturday evening when I went to The Royal Court to see the play Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett.
We are told in the programme that the theme of the play, a very funny satire, is that the baby boomer generation failed to change the world and, worse than that, left behind a difficult legacy for the generation that came after them. Spanning forty years, the action follows Kenneth (Ben Miles) and Sandra (Victoria Hamilton). We first meet them in their bohemian student years, then join them in their disillusioned forties, by which time they have a son and a daughter, and finally we see them in their retirement years.
The ‘telling, not showing’ relates to the fact that the audience is told that the couple worked hard all their lives. However, we don’t see them do any work at all, nor do we even get told what they did by way of jobs. On the contrary, at the end of the first Act, we see them planning to go off to see the world, despite the fact that they are both at Oxford. After that, they are seen only when they’re being self-indulgent and careless of their children’s needs.
This omission may not seem very important, but it was. The failure to make us genuinely believe that the couple had working lives reflects on the way that we see them, and this determines the message that we take from the play. If the playwright wants to convince us of his theme, he must do more than ask us to take his words at face value – he must show us that they are true.
The same can be said of novels.
As a reader, I don’t expect to be asked to suspend my disbelief and to go along with what I’m told. I want to believe in what’s on the page, and it’s the author’s job to ‘show’ me sufficient to make me believe what I’m reading. If s/he does that, it doesn’t matter if there’s a degree of ‘telling’.
And on the other side of the coin, as a novelist, I must try to get the balance right between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ so that I don’t short-change my reader.