Sunday, June 11, 2017

Showing vs Telling vs Presenting

One book that's recently made its way to my hands is a book on criticism called The Rhetoric of Fiction, by Wayne C. Booth, and while it takes for granted a knowledge of Important Novels that this poor genre peasant just doesn't have, I've been able to glean some insights anyway.

Mr. Booth begins with a discussion of showing and telling, which has trickled down to our ghetto as a parody of itself, Show Good Tell Bad, and can be occasionally seen used as an attempted panacea for bad writing. Apparently it's a relatively new concept, about a hundred years in common use, and it was pushed dogmatically by the early Modernists until it's all we've got now, it's weird to read books where the author addresses us. Feels archaic.

Of course if you've ever criticized a friend's attempt at prose you've probably seen what all telling and no showing is like. It's easy to become more of a show-partisan from encounters like that. What Mr. Booth brought to my mind was the existence of this false dichotomy of all-telling and all-showing stories. I've been a not-showing-everything fan for some time, probably catalyzed by Orson Scott Card's comment that thoughts of characters are told if brought up at all, and Tom Simon satirizes the all-shown story with his image of Death following dying characters to their dooms recording only their faces in his aptly named essay "Death Carries a Camcorder."

I guess part of what I'm getting at is the power of an omniscient narrator, which Mr. Booth brings up to discuss a story in Boccaccio's Decameron where important facets of characters are told about, and where the particular power of that story couldn't have existed if Boccaccio had tried to show us. I don't believe, in our quick-and-dirty experience-based salons, we spend a lot of time practicing telling, or, as one of the Modernists Booth quotes puts it,

"if the author succeeds in presenting his theme effectively . . . we shall not quarrel with his personal appearances. . . . Our main quarrel is with the author who makes his personal appearance a substitute for the artistic presentation of his subject, thinking that talking about the subject is equivalent to presenting it."
-Joseph Warren Beach, The Twentieth-Century Novel: Studies in Technique

There are sometimes aspects of a story that can't be shown economically, or without raising questions as to how the limited viewpoint knows this, or without boring the audience, that need to be directly presented by the author. Readers can forgive this, even in Current Year (Neal Stephenson frequently pauses the action to explain it, and remains very popular). What they can't forgive is, as always, being bored, and boring telling is worse than boring showing.

Presenting, though! Makes me think of an energetic speaker pacing in front of a well-made Powerpoint teaching us something we never thought could be exciting, inviting us to weigh and accept the conclusions he's made. The author can take that role.

Just a thought. Hopefully you can make something of this.

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