If you ask me, the real reason people choose to show rather than tell is that it’s so much easier to write “the big brown torn vinyl couch” than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language. You will never be told you’re cheesy if you describe a couch, but you might very well be told you’re cheesy if you try to describe loneliness. The phrase “Show, don’t tell,” then, provides cover for writers who don’t want to do what’s hardest (but most crucial) in fiction.
Besides, the distinction between showing and telling breaks down in the end. “She was nervous” is, I suppose, telling, whereas “She bit her fingernail” is, I suppose, showing. But is there any meaningful distinction between the two? Neither of them is a particularly good sentence, though if I had to choose I’d probably go with “She was nervous,” since “She bit her fingernail” is such a generic gesture of anxiety it seems lazy on the writer’s part—insufficiently imagined.
Making sense: Joshua Henkin, Why “Show, Don’t Tell” is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops, (Essay on Writer’s Workshop June 19, 2012)
Image: University of Waterloo
Inky: I’m struggling with a passage in my manuscript that reminded me of the essay I read a couple of years ago in a section of writer’s workshop called ‘There Are No Rules.’ Revisiting it hasn’t eased the struggle, yet. But it will.
– Crickets chirping –
Man, that last bit sounded so twee.