One of the most oft heard mantras in writing groups, and an important one, is "Show, don't tell." Some years ago I was in a group, and the mode of criticism favored by one of the writers was to go through a piece and find every instance of "telling" and mark it "Show this." I never saw him make any other suggestions to anyone in the group, but that one he made often, to everyone. It was a valuable note, and we could use some of our revising time much less wisely than searching out those "telling" instances and, if necessary, rewriting to "show" the thing happening. What, then, are we to make of the fiction piece that appeared in the August 31st issue of The New Yorker, that benchmark of writing excellence, the place to which I don't even bother to send my stories any more, knowing I'm never going to be up to their standards. The opening lines of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's "The Fountain House" reads:
"There once lived a girl who was killed, then brought back to life. That is, her parents were told she was dead, but they weren't allowed to keep her body. (The family had been riding the bus together; the girl was standing up front at the time of the explosion, and her parents were sitting behind her.) The girl was just fifteen, and she was thrown backward by the blast."
Hey, what's going on? This is nothing but telling. Let's skip on down and see when the showing starts, so we can be engaged as the cinema of our mind kicks in.
"He let the paramedic go. After a brief negotiation with the doctor on duty, he handed over his money, and the doctor admitted the girl to the intensive-care unit."
Now wait a minute! I want to SEE that negotiation. I think I also might want to SEE the doctor admit the girl to the ICU. Let's see how this thing ends. I'm skipping to the last two paragraphs:
"Two weeks later, she was up again, walking. The father walked with her through the hospital corridors, the whole time repeating that she had been alive after the explosion -- she had just been in shock, just in shock. No one else had noticed, but he'd known right away.
He kept quiet about the raw human heart he'd had to eat so that his daughter wouldn't. But then that had happened in a dream, and dreams don't count."
Seriously now, you're telling me I don't get to SEE that moment when the girl opens her eyes dramatically and actually gets up and walks -- after they all thought she was dead! What is going on here? Is this The New Yorker or not?
There is no question that the story is an example of telling as opposed to showing. We could pick it apart and find places where maybe the author did "show" a thing or two, particularly when some dialogue comes in, but basically, it's all telling.
Why, then, did I find this story completely engaging, and quite moving at the end?
I had suspected for some time that "show, don't tell" was getting a little overused in writing groups, but this story finally stopped me and made me re-think the issue. Now sometimes telling, which can take the form of summary, is just the ticket to move a narrative along. Don't tell that to novices! This is just for us old pros who can spot "telling" with our eyes closed. (If you let a novice in on this, he's going to go ape with "telling" and defend it every time by saying that "showing" would slow his story down. We know better.) But usually those little summaries need to be quick and well within a framework of showing.
"The Fountain House" has reminded me of something entirely different from summarizing: telling things, sometimes a whole bunch of things in a row, can be an effective way of showing something else -- if the writer has the chops to do it. That's what happens in the story. By skillfully unearthing a series of ideas that are embedded in simple (albeit traumatic) things happening, the author leaves us, at the end, synthesizing a powerful revelation. We are stunned, at best, if we are good readers. She is "telling" about a bus explosion that appeared to kill the man's daughter, though it turns out she was not really dead, was she? But through all this telling, she "shows" an amazing relationship between a parent's dreams and the loss of his child. Not something I am shown in a short story every day, I assure you, this portrait of grief is the most poignant I think I've ever read.