My daughter and I were shopping online for books the other day–one of our very favorite activities–and stumbled upon a book that seemed to want to slide onto her shelf: Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo by Obert Skye. We both admired Skye’s opening line, “It was at least forty degrees above warm.” Skye went on to impress us, in the online excerpt, with a sardonic humor (“The few remaining plants in people’s gardens didn’t wilt, they passed out. And the flags that only days before had hung majestically on the top of local flagpoles no longer looked majestic, they looked like multi-colored pieces of cloth that had climbed up and tragically hung themselves.”) and the hook of a darkly curious happening (“Anyone foolish enough to be standing outside would have been able to watch as the lightning moved with calculating accuracy, deliberately touching anything above ground level and quickly setting it ablaze. It moved sideways and upward. The sky became a giant blackboard with heaven scratching out its apocalyptic messages with lightning bolts.”).
We were ready to order, but we read a few reviews anyway. This excerpt, from Publishers Weekly, got me thinking:
Obert Skye’s imagined world of Foo contains many whimsical and delightful elements, such as Humble Pie that apologizes for its own flavor and promises to taste better next time, and candy that temporarily rearranges its chewer’s body parts. At times, the prose does not match the quality of the story. Debut novelist Skye resorts to telling instead of showing, especially with character descriptions; Lev’s guardian, for example, is “a little man with no compassion or concern for others.” Some passages are also oddly overwritten (“He didn’t speak English, he spoke anguish”). However, the story’s pacing is excellent, and the last hundred pages build palpable excitement and suspense. Kids and adults alike will enjoy this charming tale of good and evil, and look forward to the other books in the series.
Obviously, I haven’t read Skye’s book yet, so I don’t have an opinion about his work as a whole or how often he breaks the golden show-don’t-tell rule, but does the description of “a little man with no compassion or concern for others” really hurt him? It helps the reader develop an instantaneous feeling about the character so the story can move forward, after all. Is that always bad? Did Skye need to develop a sequence showing the character acting like an a-hole? What of the other characters Skye is “telling” about? Are they secondary or tertiary? Would stopping to “show” traits slow the pace or be irrelevant to the arc of the scene and overall story?
Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” But not everything can be shown. It just can’t.
Renni Browne and Dave King, in their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, wrote that “…telling your readers about your characters’ emotions is not the best way to get your readers involved. Far better to show why your characters feel the way they do.” But they also say, “Bear in mind that ‘show, don’t tell’ is not a hard-and-fast rule…There are going to be times when telling will create more engagement than showing.”
So what do you guys think? When do you show, and when do you tell? Is there a rule of thumb you use to be sure you’re doing each at the right time? Or do you follow your gut?