If you’re showing, then you’re not telling. If you’re telling, then you’re not writing well. Show OR Tell. When, in practice, show AND tell is more useful.
While I am certain this is not a new idea, it is an instance when living the advice was a more effective teacher than reading about it.
We visited Grandma last year, and I noticed a door hanger that announced God’s presence to take on all problems. There was a green and purple shower curtain smattered with verses in calligraphy. Note cards, Bibles, song books, and wall pictures are throughout my grandmother’s house. A daily devotional guide sat on the kitchen table next to a glass candy bowl, a guide that has changed annually but remains in the same spot since my childhood; the content of the glass bowl has grown up from Hershey kisses to Werther’s Originals, however.
I thought about how those visuals could be used, blandly, to describe Grandma as a character in a novel, and boy-howdy would she be a character. If I were trying to write her character by telling you about her, these might be pieces I’d include to infer she was a person of faith. Perhaps they would come in on the front-end to prepare readers for the type of person entering the scene. I wonder what prejudices would immediately surface for the reader. I wonder what conclusions a reader might jump to about the type of person she is. This is part of a writer’s job, to introduce a character both to tickle the reader’s own suppositions and to present the character as the author knows him or her to be.
If I were trying to write her character by showing you her faith, the story would likely never mention her decorating choices. The items themselves have changed so often in the intervening years of my childhood to my parenthood that they would be worthless as descriptors, unless to suggest the transience of earthly collections next to abiding spiritual faith. Nonetheless, they are collected pieces of Christian bric-a-brac that give a clear sense of religiosity but not a deep sense of how her faith has shaped her life.
My grandmother has lived in the mountains of Pennsylvania, in coal country, for most of her life. She married and worked in her husband’s family’s retail business for decades as the cashier. She took me aside one day to show me how to sort cash in a wallet so that all the bills were facing up and the same direction and then ordered from value greatest to least, with the one-dollar bills on top. She knows everyone in her corner of the world; and they know Sadie.
She has been widowed for decades. Grandpa Joe wasn’t a grandpa yet; my mom was engaged when he died of a massive heart attack. My grandmother continued working at the family store until the patriarch of the family, nicknamed “The Colonel,” died and the family decided it was time to close shop. When relatives came a-calling and a-claiming everything under the roof, my grandmother was ignored and neglected despite her decades of service. She waved it off, “I have enough, I don’t need anything. God will give them whatever they deserve.” Her resolve in this instance and her counter-cultural approach to being dismissed and overlooked in a situation where she could have claimed her “rights” was formative for me, but clearly her character had already been formed.
Almost as long as she’s been a widow, perhaps longer, Grandma has played the organ at her small, stone church – out-lasting many a rotating Methodist minister. When I spoke with her a couple days ago she reiterated their small size, eight people had been in service for Sunday School and Church. At the foremost of their minds was a woman of seventy-five who had recently passed away from cancer. Eight people had shown up in the wintry weather that Sunday and each one had missed the deceased woman’s customary greeting at the entrance.
Grandma is familiar with watching others pass on to glory ahead of her. First Dick, her particular friend of many years, then her indomitable sister Reberda, Tootie to those of us who knew her, who subsisted on M&M’s right up to the very end. And before those were brothers and sisters and a husband. Grandma’s back is painful and hunched. Her hair is shocking white, shocking only because up to a few years ago she had religiously dyed it brown and “maintained” her “natural” color. But her sass and her joy remain, a wonderful combination merging the human and divine.
The one attempt I made at playing the piano in front of our church for the evening offering was an unqualified disaster. I can think of it in no other terms. I didn’t bother sitting down for the service. I walked straight out the doors, burning with shame and hot tears. A few days later, Grandma sent the healing balm that would encourage me to plink on the piano again.
She took her occasional misses as an organist and turned them into something to laugh about. And she shared in that letter the wisdom she had gained from those experiences. From the Jesus shepherd figure surrounded by soft light and pasture on the card cover to the feminine script, ongoing sentences, and creative punctuation (I always wondered where I got that from) in the letter, the details create the aura of Grandma. Those details are not unimportant, but the action itself develops her character more broadly. In sending the letter she acknowledged it was a hard thing to mess-up publicly; in writing the letter she shared that such humiliation could be survived and possibly redeemed.
Grandma has done many things for me over the years, and helping me understand the relationship between the oft-dissected show/tell dynamic of writing is a small service in comparison to the others. But any of these blips and moments on my radar or hers could be fleshed out in narrative form to create a compelling character, deeply flawed and gloriously redeemed.
Telling is part of showing. Showing requires picking which pieces to tell. It’s both. An inventory of every do-dad in a person’s sphere of influence in order to create a character or a tension is going to result in a dull declarative read. But taking time to describe banal life events with literary flourish is likewise unhelpful. The blend may not be obvious, scenes get chopped, plot lines wander, but thinking of how we know someone intimately in our own lives when confronted with the exterior trappings of their life can help focus our attention on the details that must be told and the situations that must be shown.
What do I know about Grandma and How? The shower curtain is less important to me than the shift of contents in the candy bowl dish. That’s a detail I will keep, and I will tell. I could take the reader to a service where eight people show up and the organist balances the strong tones of the instrument against the feeble voices of the congregants tangled in emotions lamenting loss and celebrating community. Showing might be a better option than telling about the stack of hymnals next to her organ at home.