When writing teachers say “show, don’t tell,” they typically suggest doing so through dialogue, action, and sense imagery. Exposition, on the other hand—the writing that contextualizes the more active aspects of scene, and is often thought of as mere connective tissue—is often pointed to as “telling.” After all, its etymology is from the Latin exponere, which means “explain.”
If a reader wanted to be lectured, he’d probably choose nonfiction. Fiction fans love to add things up in their own minds. They rarely want their stories explained.
But exponere can also mean “expose.” When a woman exposes her body to a lover, do you suspect there’ll be a whole lot of explaining going on? [Except in Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, that is, where such “explaining” is used to comic effect. In one scene, Dr. Kellogg, a man experienced with the deflowering of virgins, is speaking to the young supplicant (our POV character) lying naked on his bed. “Forgive me if my hands are cold, Vivian, but I’m going to begin touching you now.” She finally kisses him to make him shut up. Ha!]
Clearly, exposition can either show or tell, or pull off both, which does not make things clear at all for the studious writer.
Take the opening of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, often misremembered as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” By applying his value judgment, the author is telling you about the times.
But the actual first sentence is:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Within the context of the whole, the best of times/worst of times paradox—that on its own had felt like telling—becomes the first of many paradoxes, whose accumulation “shows” that only superlatives can define the period.
But stories have changed since 1859. Who knows if today’s publishers would let a writer like Dickens through their gates? So let’s look at a New York Times Notable Book that was published in 2001: How to be Good by Nick Hornby. The novel starts with the following first-person observation. Is it telling, or showing? [Read more…]