Seduction, Not Instruction (Part I)by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, June 1998
One of the first admonitions to a beginning writer is to "Show not Tell". Let me start this two-part article by saying I hate this adage, that I find it misleading, confusing and often next-to-useless. I might add that for years I didn't understand what it meant and agonised over why my own writing was flat.
The classic example is to change a phrase like "he was angry" to a description of the protagonist displaying evidence of that anger, white knuckles, a flush face, staring eyes, perhaps. The argument goes, don't tell me he's angry, show me his behaviour and let me work it out.
I shall not to bore the reader, wannabe, beginner or experienced writer by redoing the simple and simplistic show-not-tell examples gleaned from many how-to books but here's one misquoted, from an author I can't recall from James Frey's excellent little book, How To Write A Damn Good Novel. Frey pointed to a passage where a Korean-War story had a ruthless, hard-bitten GI sergeant and the author had told us that the sarge was ruthless and hard-bitten. This was eventually changed to a private speaking to the sergeant and asking him what he was doing, to which the sergeant replied, "Eating chocolate and killing gooks!" Nuff said.
In the opening to my second book, Caz Flood, who's sharp, is being driven to the police station by her detective inspector. This was the first draft.
Another Monday! Early. December. Cold. Crisp. Black. Brighton's quiet roads washed with early-morning street-light as Detective Inspector Tom MacInnes drove slowly towards the central police station in John Street. Alongside him, bright-faced and alert, Caz Flood stared out, her face lit intermittently by the flashing yellow of sodium, her blonde hair loose over her shoulders.
But "bright-faced and alert" Yuck!
December. Another Monday! Early. Cold. Crisp. Black. Brighton's quiet roads washed with morning street-light as Detective Inspector Tom MacInnes drove slowly towards the central police station in John Street. Alongside him, her eyes darting, Caz Flood stared out, her face lit intermittently by the flashing yellow of sodium, her blonde hair loose over her shoulders.
This is almost screenplay. There's no introspection here, no explanation, but we know time and place, get a glimpse of Caz and her attitude. And that exclamation mark... trivially placed? Don't we get told don't use them? Why is it there? Surely it's not the author exclaiming? So is Caz pleased to be going back to work? Yes? How do you know. Did I tell you?
One reason that show-not-tell doesn't quite cut it for me is that many writers confuse facts delivered in a sequence as tell. Many writers of my acquaintance might call the above paragraph tell. In my opinion it's 100% show (a better word: seduction). It requires the reader's intelligence to glean information which isn't at the top level but is implied by this fairly straightforward paragraph. If it was genuine tell, all the information would be at this top level -- we would be instructed in what to see and what it means.
I've said I hate the phrase show-not-tell. I don't think it is descriptive enough of what the writer should be doing. "Tell" is usually easy to define, but non-tell, the evoking of sentiment in the reader, the involvement of the reader in the process of reading, is too complex to call simply "show." The rule of thumb "show-not-tell" causes far too much misunderstanding and confusion in creative writing discussions.
Think of good classes in school, college, or university. The good ones excite, involve the audience, maybe break up the dissemination of information with jokes, slides, movement, questions to the class, exercises. Bad lectures, on the other hand drone on, full of information (perhaps) but delivered so monotonously that we fail to absorb them. The lecturer has purely instructed and not gained the interest or cooperation of his students, he has failed to seduce them into his way of thinking, has failed to make them receptive, bright-faced and alert.
Tell instructs, is explicit, treats the reader as a sponge with an equivalent IQ. Show is implicit, treats the reader as part of the process, with a decent IQ. We get involved with seduction, fall asleep when instructed.
But the point is, what really works for us, what drags us deeper into the fictive dream, deeper into the real-world of fiction and further away from the words on the page, any remembrance of the author, is involvement. Show is a lousy word. Seduction involves us. Tell -- instruction -- deadens us. Good writing, all good writing, whether argued as show, tell, seduction, instruction, must involve us, make us emote, think, alter our mental state as part of the reading process.
Here's a passage some call tell. (Maybe if they thought seduction, not instruction they wouldn't have so much difficulty). It's from a story of mine that went close at Atlantic Monthly called "Making a Go."
1952 and Bridie leaves her terrible, stultifying marriage but she can't forget her children...
About the time Ronnie was starting at Grammar School, Bridie took all the furniture from her sitting room and stacked it in her bedroom. Then she pulled up the linoleum and set to work with sand-paper. Every night, after finishing in the shop, she worked for two hours rubbing down the boards. By Ronnie's half-term holiday, the floor was immaculate. She stained it, and then, over the next few days she soaked it with a dark brown polish smelling of almonds. When it was dry she buffed it to glass and then lay a new rug in front of the fireplace. Next to the clock above the fire she put a little china dog, a gift from Mrs Stefano. Behind the clock she put her Building Society book.
Show or Tell? Out of context it might not be so easy to see.
Remember, tell, instruction, has everything, it does not require you to think. Here, where is the explanation, introspection, justification, exploration? Implied.
Here we are told facts but shown Bridie's life. What's contained in the paragraph, hidden, implicit would have been at least two pages a couple of years ago. Hemingway said we need to know everything, but reveal just a few percent, the tip of the ice-berg. The power, danger, weight and momentum lie hidden beneath the surface. All this is hidden, perhaps implied...
Bridie still missed her children, ached for them. not a day went by when she didn't think of them, wonder how they were doing, how they were getting on at school, whether they were missing her. In the August she realised it was the start of the new term and she realised that young Ronnie, eleven now, would have passed his eleven-plus examination and would be about to start at the grammar school. She thought about all her children, of course, but little Ronnie had a special place in her heart. About that time Ronnie was starting at grammar school...
But becoming aware, thinking too much, filled her with grief, and she determined to strike ahead and continue building her new life in London. She looked around her simple flat and decided that maybe she could do something about the floor, spruce the place up a bit and kill two birds with one stone; make her daily life better, her home better and, like Tolstoy, distract herself with hard manual work...
Bridie took all the furniture from her sitting room and stacked it in her bedroom. then she pulled up the linoleum and set to work with sand-paper.
It was very, very hard work. She worked so hard in her day job that really all she wanted to do when she got home was sleep but she wouldn't give in. She wasn't the type to ever give in. she would work and work and work until either she dropped or the job was done.
Every night, after finishing in the shop, she worked for two hours rubbing down the boards.
She never, never forgot the kids though, not Pat or Jenny or Barbara or Angela and of course not Ronnie. Every day they were in her thoughts. the job, this tough tough job, sandpapering, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing took eight weeks....
By Ronnie's half-term holiday, the floor was immaculate.
She felt a kind of triumph. The room smelt different, looked different. She felt cleansed and justified and proud. Proud that she had won through. Oh, sure, other people would think she had achieved little but they didn't understand, she had earned her beautiful room, she deserved her new home... and now she thought, I shall continue to improve my environment and my life for after all isn't this apartment a metaphor for why I ran away?
She stained it, and then, over the next few days she soaked it with a dark brown polish smelling of almonds.
But every change requires more effort, more thought, yet more sacrifice.
When it was dry she buffed it to glass and then lay a new rug in front of the fireplace.
And her relationship with Mr. Stefano and Mrs. Stefano was subtly changing. They too appreciated everything she had done for them and for herself. They had seen how she struggled to build a new home and a new life, and when Mrs Stefano had bought Bridie a small gift she had understood, woman to woman and had bought her a simple ornament to display.
Next to the clock above the fire she put a little china dog, a gift from Mrs. Stefano.
And all this time, this time, all this time Bridie scrimped and scraped, watching every penny determined never ever, never again would she be poor. She had opened a building society account and every week (she had never failed) every week she put something away.
Behind the clock she put her building society book.
Have I made myself clear?
You can read Part II of "Seduction, Not Instruction" here.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.