“In short, you have all the social prospects of a garden gnome.” – Cosimo, The Skin Map
One of the most-loved adages in the writing world is the infamous “show not tell.” Most of us were raised to live and breathe this principle, and our writing thanks us for it.
But there is an exception to every rule. There are times when “telling” is what’s best for the story; there are times when the subject is so fascinating that the writer can ramble away without consequence. In fact, if you are a clever writer, you might be able to get away with a great deal of telling without your reader ever noticing.
Stephen Lawhead gave me this radical notion in his book The Skin Map. In the first chapter, we meet Kit Livingstone and trail him as he fights his way through the maze of London, only to get lost and rained upon. Just as he’s turning for home, a mysterious man appears from the alley blocks the way. He claims to be Kit’s great-grandfather – who incidentally is long-dead.
Naturally, Kit is skeptical. To prove his sincerity, the old man proceeds to give us Kit’s life story. Within a matter of pages, we know Kit’s family history, his appearance, a summary of his early life and education, and a snarky assessment of his social status and love life. Kit’s entire existence is spelled out to us in a series of long, blunt paragraphs – a perfect example of undiluted “telling.”
Yet, the reader doesn’t realize they’re being force-fed Kit’s life story. Only looking back on the chapter did I realize with a grin what a clever trick Lawhead had pulled. The reader devours the telling paragraphs because we, like Kit, are astonished that this man who just formulated out of the shadows knows every jot and tittle of Kit’s life. We don’t realize it’s telling because it’s interesting.
Therefore, I would like to propose an amendment to the old adage. Instead of “show not tell,” perhaps it should be “show not tell – unless you can make the telling interesting!”