Does psychology support the show-don’t-tell writing maxim?

December 8, 2011 § 4 Comments

When of the most common things an aspiring writer will hear about writing is “show don’t tell.” I come across it ad nauseum in blogs, books, and conversations. “Don’t tell me he was upset,” they say, “show me he was upset.” But there are a lot of other “rules” in the writing world that are founded on the current literary climate and personal styles, rather than laws of the writing universe.  It’s hardly worth mentioning that storytelling methods have evolved over time and people don’t write today the same way that Jane Austen wrote, who didn’t write the same way as the authors that came before her, and people breaking rules is how that evolution happens. For example, I think the fear and loathing that is often expressed towards adverbs is overstated and (at least for me) counterproductive. Despite their overuse, there is a time and a place to use it, like any other part of speech. This has left me to ponder the age-old struggle between showing and telling.

Enter the psychologists. Joan Peskin and Janet Astington, who have studied the effects of showing and telling on children.

Joan Peskin and Janet Astington chose a group of published children’s picture books. From these they created two sets of books. In each case the stories, actions, and pictures were the same, but in one set the experimenters pasted into the book text that had a lot of mental state language (“he felt,” “she thought,” etc.) In the other set the pasted-in text had no mental state language. Children were assigned to one kind of book or the other, and over four weeks in school, teachers and research assistants read the children about 70 such books. The children who encountered the books with a lot of mental state terms used more such terms in stories they dictated to a scribe. But it seems that they were probably using the terms without fully understanding them, because children in the group who heard the stories without mental state terms had better comprehension of theory-of-mind. It seems that children in this second group were affected by the gaps: they had actively to construct their own inferences about what characters were thinking and feeling. Thereby they reached better understandings of these issues.

-“Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction” by Keith Oatley p. 163

A similar study with adults, by Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon, indicated that when readers aren’t told what the characters are feeling and instead must pick up on indirect suggestions, they understood the characters better. The increased “theory-of-mind” that the study talks about, is a person’s ability to understand mental states (beliefs, emotions, etc.), and understand that other people’s may differ from your own.

It looks as though I no longer have any excuses for my lapses into lazy telling-not-showing writing, at least as long as I want readers to better relate to my characters. If you happen to find this as fascinating as I do, you should look up “Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction” by Keith Oatley.

As an interesting aside, fiction movies also have been shown to increase a person’s theory-of-mind, but television does not. I may have to revise my view of the relation between books and movies.

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§ 4 Responses to Does psychology support the show-don’t-tell writing maxim?

  • Jay Swanson says:

    Of course the trick remains to effectively show what you would otherwise tell =)

  • ‘Show Don’t Tell’ is perfect for people of limited imagination. The author takes them by the hand and leads them along as you would a small child. I have more respect for my readers.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      Thomas, I think you may have either misspoken or misunderstood. The point is that telling requires less imagination from the readers and therefore shows little respect for them. Showing requires them to connect the dots for themselves. For example, you could write, “Sally got mad”, which would be telling or you could say “Sally gritted her teeth and avoided meeting her sister’s eye. She was worried what she’d say if she did.” The second example allows the reader to infer her emotions and let them experience more directly because saying “Sally got mad” doesn’t usually evoke the same kind of emotional response in the reader. If you really do reject this idea, I’d love to hear your reasons why. Thanks for the comment!

      • My statement stands as written. I believe that when an author attempts to show every nuance of emotion you rob the reader of their right to imagine the scene on their own terms. This is often necessary when describing the setting, but not as it relates to people. The Show Don’t Tell rule is a product of the television age where everything is spoon-fed to viewers. They’re not allowed to recall images of angry people from their memories, and imagine the expression on Sally’s face, they have to be told that Sally gritted her teeth and averted her eyes so they can move on quickly without using their brain. An example that I read recently on this topic also used anger as the vehicle. The writer wrote in the blog, and this is not a precise citation, ‘his eyes narrowed and you could almost see his ears flatten against his head.’ I don’t need an author to tell me how people react when they are angry because I already know. I only need the author to tell me that the character is angry, so I don’t mistakenly assume that the character is perhaps bemused or indifferent. If you feel a need to lead people by the hand, as you would a small child because their worldly experiences are limited, then by all means please continue to do so, but I reject the so-called rule that all authors must ‘Show Not Tell.’

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