Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Became Popular

When we write fiction nowadays, we tend to think that there are certain rules of style we should follow. One of these is the “Show, Don’t Tell” adage, which says that we should tell a story through the actions and speech of the characters rather than simply narrating or summarizing what happened. But few people are aware how modern these rules are, and that writers in the past never followed them. Take this passage from Pride and Prejudice written by Jane Austen in 1813:

Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves. What a contrast between him and his friend! Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again.

The main thing to notice is how lacking in details this particular scene is. What kind of dance were Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy dancing? What was he saying that made Mr. Bingley appear lively? What were all the characters wearing? What expression was on Mr. Darcy’s face when he was dancing? Sorry, but Jane Austen doesn’t show details of her character’s actions, we have to use our imagination to fill them in. Now, compare that with a passage from Fifteen, a novel written by Beverly Cleary in 1956:

“Hello there!” A girl’s voice interrupted Jane’s daydream, and she looked up to see Marcy Stokes waving at her from a green convertible driven by Greg Donahoe, president of the junior class of Woodmont High School. “Hi Marcy,” Jane called back. People who said “Hello there” to her always made her feel so unimportant. Greg waved, and as the couple drove on down the hill, Marcy brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and smiled back at Jane with the kind of smile a girl riding in a convertible with a popular boy on summer day gives a girl who is walking alone. And that smile made Jane feel that everything about herself was all wrong.

This passage reads almost like it was written for a movie, even though it wasn’t. Every visual detail that is required to film this as a movie has been given, and it works quite ingeniously. Teenagers riding in a convertible is a shorthand for hedonism, which the author does not have to state explicitly. Even though the line “[she] smiled back at Jane with the kind of smile a girl riding in a convertible with a popular boy on summer day gives a girl who is walking alone” sounds very awkward, it tells all us the attitude Marcy had towards Jane perfectly.

The story of how we went from the style of Jane Austen to what we have now is an interesting one. I tried to do some research on it but realized it would be too long to put in a single post, but suffice it to say it began with the Realist and Naturalist writers of the 19th century. They believed in describing reality “the way it is” instead of using clichés or formulas. This style of writing can be illustrated by an example from Honore de Balzac’s A Daughter of Eve, written in 1839:

In one of the finest houses of the rue Neuve-des-Mathurins, at half-past eleven at night, two young women were sitting before the fireplace of a boudoir hung with blue velvet of that tender shade, with shimmering reflections, which French industry has lately learned to fabricate. Over the doors and windows were draped soft folds of blue cashmere, the tint of the hangings, the work of one of those upholsterers who have just missed being artists. A silver lamp studded with turquoise, and suspended by chains of beautiful workmanship, hung from the centre of the ceiling. The same system of decoration was followed in the smallest details, and even to the ceiling of fluted blue silk, with long bands of white cashmere falling at equal distances on the hangings, where they were caught back by ropes of pearl.

Notice that every mundane detail, no matter how small, is described in detail. This is a far cry from Jane Austen where she describes the actions of her characters in only broad strokes. Eventually this “showy” style caught on, became adopted by many writers.

This “showy” style has both positive and negative consequences. On the plus side, it makes novels much more vivid and lively. When I watch a movie set in the Victorian era I always enjoy seeing the costumes, elegantly decorated dance halls and so on. But none of that is described in any of her books, making them as dull as the paper they were printed on. Many of her paragraphs are simply exposition, making her books very boring to read.

On the negative side, this “showy” style can be problematic because novels aren’t movies. If a book tries to fill in every realistic detail, it would be boring as hell. Nobody needs to know what the doormat looks like, or how many gray hairs are on a lady’s head. Yet sometimes authors will include these boring details as though they were describing a movie. Sometimes I find myself falling into this trap. But writing in a “showy” style can make a work much more interesting. Take this scene from Heart of Darkness, written in 1899:

The sea–reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

Using powerful visual images to give emotional salience to your story is a very good way to communicate to the reader. The point isn’t to get rid of this style, but to use it judiciously. Unlike Jane Austen, we have a much more versatile toolbox of techniques she didn’t have.

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