Showing too little

‘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.

At The Royal Court to see 'Love, Love, Love', with my brother-in-law and younger son

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.

Victoria Hamilton, courtesy of the BBC

Ben Miles, courtesy of trialx









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.

  • Yes, I agree. Sometimes it is really hard to suspend belief. It is amazing what we expect of readers. You make a very good point, Liz.

  • John Jackson:

    Good point well made. As a reader, I want to be able to believe the character’s back stories as the tale progresses.

    • Liz:

      Carol and John – many thanks for your comments. I’m always irritated when I read a book where the characters have endless money, but are never seen at work, or where we are told things generally that we never get to see for ourselves. I don’t often feel this about plays, though, which is why it stood out this time.

  • Very salutary reminder for all writers, Liz. I still think I do far too much telling and what enough showing.

    • Liz:

      LOL at your self-correction, Emma.

      As I said to Liz F, I think it’s really hard to get the balance right – but it’s all too easy to see when the balance is wrong, as happened, imho, last Saturday with the play.

  • And not enough proofreading either! I meant “not enough showing…”

  • Such a difficult area! Sometimes, we need to skip on to the next scene and don’t want to explain every move, but even then we need to insert some h of showing.

    If your play characters had had some stressful/urgent calls on their mobiles and/or had to rush off to a meeting, that would have helped.

    But Ben Miles is always worth watching!

    • Liz:

      Ben Miles was amazing. He started as a 19 yr old, and went through to his 60s. It was very well done, even if he looked a bit of a jaded student!! Victoria Hamilton, who also aged in similar fashion, was outstanding.

      Some reference to their jobs, or a glimpse of something that didn’t involve alcohol, would have helped us t believe that they’d worked hard all of their lives.

  • I suppose what we’re looking for is rounded characters because that makes them appear real. I can suspend belief to a certain extent but once I’ve reached that point where I don’t believe in the characters any more, all is lost.

    • Liz:

      Many thanks, Cara.

      I think that the omission on the part of the playwright meant that the evening was light and entertaining, but never more than that. The way that he concluded the play, though, suggests that he wanted to make a profound statement, as well as to entertain. In that, he failed.

  • That’s a very fair comment, Liz, if the audience was meant to believe in such hard work through their years. Interesting that show don’t tell can apply to drama just as much as writing!

    • Liz:

      Many thanks for your comment, Rosemary. It’s the first time that I’ve ever thought that about a play.

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