Dispatches No. 3: Joan Leegant on “Show, Don’t Tell”

Posted Wed, 11/26/2014 - 5:29pm by  |  Category:

Dispatches Series GraphicJust Tell It

by Joan Leegant

Recently a woman came in to talk about a memoir she was writing about a family sabbatical overseas. She’d sent me some chapters in advance and, while there was much to admire, one scene seemed forced. In it, the writer is on the living room couch, photo album open, telling her children how she and their father met. The scenario seemed entirely constructed as a vehicle for getting across the marital history. Why the contrivance? I wondered. Why not just come right out and tell the reader? I met my husband on a hot day in July of 1985 when he walked by me in the dining hall, sweaty and smelling of the chicken coop.

When the writer came in, I asked her about the scene. It struck me as unnecessary, I said—even artificial. Why not simply tell the reader the history directly?

Oh, that’s how I’d originally written it, she said. But then some readers took a look and told me I needed to show everything. That I should put as much as I could into scene.

Two days later, I read a chapter of a novel-in-progress by another writer who’d signed up to meet with me. It was about a young girl soon to be taken from her rural country life to New York City by her not-very-reliable father. There were excellent descriptions of setting, a vivid evocation of the girl’s bereft grandmother, moments where we saw the child pensively arranging her suitcases or sitting quietly in the garden. But after ten pages, I couldn’t get a handle on how the girl felt about the move. Was she terrified? Eager? Was I supposed to view her as neutral because she was burying her feelings?

I asked the writer when she came in. Oh no, she’s very worried, she told me. So I guess I need to write more moments that hint at her state of mind. Okay, I said. But you can also tell us what she’s feeling, perhaps by interior thinking that accompanies the contemplation. She sat in the garden looking at all she would be leaving. The thought of New York, the way the skyscrapers in the pictures loomed like fierce giants, terrified her. I can do that? the writer asked. I thought I wasn’t supposed to tell. I thought I had to show everything.

I thought I had to show everything. If you’ve ever been in a writing class, you’ve heard the mantra: Show, Don’t Tell. Translation: dramatize your characters and their situation. Don’t just say, “Marcus was angry.” Have Marcus punch a wall, yell at the barista for making his latte too foamy, scream at his mother on his cell.

All good advice. But taken to its extreme, it limits your storytelling, as the memoirist and novelist both found out. Even when the drama works (She went through the garden with her grandmother’s scissors, cutting all the flowers so she could take them with her), you may prefer to tell. Powerful telling is as effective for pulling your reader in as any vividly rendered scene. Consider this from Amy Bloom’s “Love Is Not A Pie”: “In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding.” I’m in that story inside of twenty words.

Writing advice is valuable, but so-called rules need to be handled gingerly—and with a lot of salt. When I told the novelist she didn’t have to dramatize all the poor child’s emotions—that sometimes being direct was best—her face lit up: So I can really do that?

Yes, ma’am, I told her. Like they say in the Nike ad: Just tell it.