Subtext Should Be Neither Shown Nor Told
I received a response to my latest blog post, from the artist and writer (and my friend) Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein. We exchanged a few emails, with his initial statement about show don’t tell being this:
The rule actually applies only to subtext. Bad writers tell you why characters are doing something... [Good writers] to be telling (like Bolaño) when they aren't, they skirt the subtext.
Set within this context, the rule makes more sense. Bolaño might give us lengthy passages in which the action is summarized rather than detailed, but he never breaks into a because moment. Through this lens, it’s likely that I agree with the show, don’t tell rule. But I still do consider the the rule to be responsible for large swaths of terrible writing, writing in the style of the “renowned Dan Brown”.
Another way to look at this issue is that telling is the moment when the writing is explained because the author lacks confidence in either their own writing or the ability of the audience to understand. Or, when the author clunkily clarifies whose perspective the story is told through or what that person is feeling.
I shared some of these thoughts with Rob, writing back with: "I like your interpretation of the rule. Show don’t tell definitely makes a lot of bad writing better. But also serves as a crutch for lots of writers too."
Rob responded with these thoughts:
I imagine "show, don't tell" as being a prohibition against saying why something happened or why a metaphor was used. It's as if this line from One Hundred Years of Solitude's opening paragraph:
"At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs."
"At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs because the town existed a long time ago and is ancient like the eggs are."
So it's kind of like having to explain a joke after telling it--a sign that the joke didn't work. In the same way, great writing infers the subtext. "Show, don't tell" is a prohibition against writing that doesn't work, not a prohibition against exposition or description.
The more I considered this, the more it reminded me of something I’ve meant to write about for a while: the practice, in many contemporary songs, for a singer or rapper to use a metaphor and then immediately explain the metaphor. For all his lyrical talent, it’s something Lil Wayne tends to do often. One particularly frustrating example that always sticks in my head is this moment in “BedRock”, a Young Money collaboration:
And now we murderers, because we kill time
The line is buried in a verse with other meek metaphors (including "Cold as a winter's day, hot as a summer's eve"), but it also shouldn’t be taken as a sign that Lil Wayne is a bad poet or metaphorist.
I’m certain that Lil Wayne will eventually get the same treatment as Bob Dylan and Billy Corgan and Tupac, having his lyrics collected as poetry and his words studied as art. Even if, as noted, he sometimes feels the need to explain his metaphors instead of just letting them ride.
The Trouble with Because
Another example that comes to mind is when Juicy-J does the same thing at the end of this verse in “Dark Horse”, his collaboration with Katy Perry:
She’s a beast
I call her Karma
She eat your heart out
Like Jeffrey Dahmer
Try not to lead her on
Shawty’s heart was on steroids
'Cause her love was so strong
This, it seems to me, is what Rob K-S is describing in his note of leaving subtext to subtext.. Better to leave your metaphors misunderstood or unnoticed than to interrupt and say: “Get it? Because her love is strong?”
Again, not that these should be used as evidence that rap and pop are examples of bad writing. I’d rather have clunky metaphors than delicate adverbs. I still remember a line in George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons when he uses the adverb “gingerly” twice in one sentence.
That, and it must be mentioned that Lil Wayne is responsible for the greatest two lines in the history of songwriting:
And when I was five my favorite movie was the Gremlins
Ain't got shit to do with this but I just thought that I should mention
Finally, I’ve continued rewriting the Bulwer-Lytton sentence daily, now on Day 12. Those are collected in the other blog post I published today.