I could tell you, but we’ll both have more fun

if you let me show you.

I promise that as much as it sounds like it, that statement isn’t any sort of innuendo. This has been the tagline on vML for years now. Professors in all of my writing classes always told me to “Show, don’t tell.” I can’t remember the number of times I found that scribbled in red in somewhere in the margin of a returned assignment. For a long time, I’d genuinely believed it was a million times better to paint a picture with words and let the reader figure out what was happening, but as of late, I’m wondering if that’s always the best approach or rather, if it should be applied universally.

Showing definitely works in newscasting. Fox News claims to employ a “Fair and Balanced” journalistic approach to current events. Most people know that Fox caters to the right-leaning public, which completely denigrates any notion of balance. For that reason alone, many people refuse to rely on them as a source for news. I have to admit that I still tune in to that station whenever I feel like learning about the horrors happening in the world on any given day. Regardless, adding too much opinion or “interpretation” to the facts is a turnoff for everyone involved.

Fiction certainly needs to be built on imagery, conversation and action, right? All of those work together to present some kind of story. But how often is a story written simply for the events therein? There has to be some philosophical notion hiding in there somewhere, right? Maybe not all the time, but Jules Vern, Daniel Defoe, Leo Tolstoy and Harper Lee all communicated important ideas in their stories. The exploits of their characters functioned as vehicles to aid in understanding ideas.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged contains a chapter wherein famed character John Galt lays out much of what the book was saying in the previous several hundred pages. For some reason, the author seems to have felt that if near the end of the journey, people still weren’t getting it, it would be necessary to lay it all out clear as day for everybody in the form of a (boring) sixty page monologue. That portion of text nearly killed me.

Was Rand justified in this approach? That particular section (Section four, chapter seven) has received a lot of attention from fans and scholars. This is largely because she was so explicit in the philosophies that she adhered to, but at the same time, it was a giant section of text where one man talked the entire time- it only barely fit in with the story! Anyone who analyzes Atlas Shrugged has to ask if Rand had any faith in people to arrive at correct conclusions simply by following the story or, if Rand had faith in herself to communicate what she wanted to, using a story. I’d suggest that the former was the issue, because if she was anything, Ayn Rand was confident in herself.

Communicators (writers, preachers, artists and musicians) must ask themselves the same question: Can I get my point across by showing, or must I also offer propositions or truth statements in order to make my thesis clear to my audience? They also have to ask if getting it (the main idea) right is important. I’m egocentric enough to believe that I occasionally have important ideas to share, so this is something I struggle with all the time (I would believe that all writers believe they have something to say as well, we’re a flawed bunch).

What do you think?

Have you ever had this problem?