Who’s Story is it?

“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most common piece of advice authors hear from mentors and the most frequently-taught lesson by instructors. And yet, as I worked my way through the National Book Award finalists, I found that these award-winning novelists appeared to break the rule by narrating their stories as though they were sitting beside me at a campfire. In lyrical prose that would make any high school English teacher blush with pride, they shared their stories with few lines of dialog or bursts of evocative action intruding upon their dense narratives.

So which is it—show or tell?

The answer may be that if the densely-packed words are coming from the minds of characters, the characters are showing and the author isn’t telling. But if the words are coming directly from the author, narrating the action like a voice-over in a movie, the author is telling. I think the allure of their poetic sentences and their linguistic acrobatics sometimes allow good writers to get away with violating the rule by telling the reader the story.

I’ve never been nominated for a National Book Award but I have adopted a technique, or perhaps it’s a mindset, that helps me avoid telling a story I should be showing—I make the characters tell the story through their dialog, actions, and thoughts because it is indeed their story and not mine. I am merely a conduit, a pathway for words to reach paper. I set the scene, describe the location and the characters, and let the characters do the rest. Once you adopt this mindset, that the story belongs to the characters and it is theirs to tell, you will show without telling.

I can’t take any credit for this approach—I stole it from the movies. Although some movies do feature voice-over narration, the narrator is generally a character in the movie who is sharing thoughts and not telling the story. Most movies rely entirely upon visual scene-setting, dialog, and action to tell the story. Call it the cinematic approach to storytelling.

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