Tell, Don’t Show?

Recently I read a chapter from Orson Scott Card’s book Characters and Viewpoint. I found a particular argument that he made fascinating enough to warrant a post of it’s own. I’ve always been a huge proponent of the “Show, don’t tell,” rule in literature. In case you’re not familiar with that rule, here’s a short breakdown of the differences between the two.

Bob grabbed the grocery list, headed for the door, then remembered he needed to tell his Mom where he was going. With that accomplished, he finally turned the handle and was off to the store.

“Hey Mom, where did you put the grocery list?” Bob yelled.
“It’s on the counter, honey,” his Mother replied.
Bob turned on his heel to look at the counter. Sure enough, there was the list. Grabbing it, he ran to the door, then paused.
“Mom! I’m going to the store!”
“Have fun!”

I always assumed that the second way, showing, was an inherently better storytelling technique. I’ve had people inform me that telling interrupts the flow of the book and is flat-out lazy. I’ve had people inform me that telling is almost never appropriate, and that as much telling as possible should be removed from the book. What Orson Scott Card argues, however, is that telling isn’t actually bad. In fact, he says, in most scenarios, it might even be good.

Why this sudden contradiction of such a commonly repeated rule? He explains.

Card says a story should be told economically. Characters should be given just enough depth for them to accomplish their purpose in the story, and then the writer should stop (he makes exceptions, of course, but that’s the general principle he proposes). His next point is that the notion that “experimental” or “hard to decipher” writing is better, is simply wrong. The writing should match the story, not eclipse it. A fiction novel is a novel, not a writing manual. If the writing effectively and unobtrusively communicates the story, it has done its job.

So, he says, telling, like the telling shown in the example above, fulfills the criteria for good writing best. Unless the conversation between the mother and son is important to the plot it isn’t in the best interest of the book to include it. It bloats the book and doesn’t add personality or depth to any of the characters. It’s a simple exchange that the reader can imagine on their own if they want to, or, as is more likely, they can simply ignore it and move on.

Therefore, he concludes, in this situation, and most others like it, telling is the best option.

So why the constant hammering of the “Show, don’t tell,” rule by some? Card deals with that too. He says that showing almost inevitably takes up more time than telling. Obviously, he says, if you show in the proper places it will be more than justified to take that time. However, because showing takes up more time it has mistakenly led people to believe that it is a better storytelling format than telling. Card disagrees vehemently. Telling is how most inessential information is conveyed in a book, and it should be that way.

The point where Mr. Card agrees with the rule is when showing does in fact benefit the plot. Examples could be adding character personality, or communicating essential plot-information, or things of that sort. He treats showing and telling as tools. What better fits the information being communicated? Does the information warrant the time spent showing it? I have to say, I agree with Mr. Card. Instead of an across-the-board rule, perhaps using both telling and showing as what they are–tools–is the better path.