Newbie writers are often hounded by well-meaning, more-experienced writers to “follow the rules of good writing.” While I was reading the 10 Hugo/Nebula books for a challenge, I found very much rule-breaking going on, and these are supposed to be the best books of the science fiction and fantasy arena.
One such rule is “Show; Don’t Tell.” The idea is that you don’t write out things like “Bob was furious!” Instead you write out what Bob did because he was furious and let the reader figure it out from there. You know, stuff like “Bob slammed the door before he stomped over to me and jabbed his finger at my face.” You don’t write “The car’s engine was dying.” You write “The car lurched as the engine sputtered.”
Telling the reader what’s going on is considered bad form, a major Thou Shalt Not of writing. To a point, I can understand that. In my elementary teaching adventures, I read many stories that were all tell and no show. They’re clipped, disjointed, and very hard to read. On the other hand, as a staff editor for a small press, I have helped sort through slush pile entries in which the writer went five sides around the square to get around telling and ended up making a bigger mess. The convoluted solution to the problem was awful to read. So, based on those examples, neither extreme is helpful.
How did the Hugos and Nebulas do on this rule? As an editor, I would have used very many virtual sticky notes to suggest better constructions. Some of the books were better than others, of course, but when I was reading with a critical eye, the amount of telling was surprising.
At first, I thought the amount of telling might be a result of the era the book came from. Perhaps the rules have changed over time. The ones I read spanned dates from 1954 (Fahrenheit 451) to 2001 (Goblet of Fire). They all showed the same trend. There was much more telling than any editor or critique partner I’ve ever had would allow.
The lesson to be learned? Show when you can, but if showing creates a rat nest of words, telling will not result in destroying the world. Clarity trumps other rules, even Show; Don’t Tell.