We’ve all heard it a hundred times: “Show, don’t tell.” I don’t like most rules – I’m a rebel – but I actually buy into this one. There are exceptions, and as with any rule a good writer can defy it, but it generally holds true that in many ways large and small a writer should not be telling a story as much as showing one. You are your reader’s guide in another world, showing them the way. You don’t leave your readers here and tell them about it after you get back.
But let’s look a little deeper at one of the meanings behind this “rule.” It goes deeper to the very heart of the art. The principle is the same, its importance is the same if not greater, but have you thought of it, and how many times have you forgotten it? I know I, personally, don’t always remember it. And yet it’s so simple; how do we forget it?
It’s really not complicated, mysterious, or surprising. The simple fact is that we, as writers, are observers, explorers, students of beauty and wonder; we take pictures of our findings, pictures made up of words, pictures of things nobody else has ever seen. But sometimes we forget that we’re students, not teachers–don’t we?
What I mean, in plain language, is this: It’s our job to show our readers what we see and what we think, but not to tell them what to think.
We’re fiction writers. We write about feelings, not facts: not tangible things that you can see and touch, but higher things, things that can’t necessarily be proven to exist but we know exist nonetheless. Sometimes these things are clearly visible in the everyday, if you look. But sometimes, we become so enthusiastic about what we’re seeing and what we’re showing our readers and what our story means to us, that we forget ourselves and start to tell our readers what to expect and what to think as we’re writing.
Art is in the eye of the beholder. What our readers see might not always be what we meant them to see; and that’s okay. That’s what art is all about. That’s the beautiful thing about it. If anything we should be trying to make the pictures we present clearer, if we want to guide interpretation by the strength of an artist’s sutlety; but we should not be telling people what to see in our art.