Show they said, don’t tell they said...

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

If you have hung around enough writing groups or turned left and right on the Internet browsing writing tips, you would have encountered the famous “show, don’t tell”. It is believed among the most technical of us that this is the Holy Grail of writing advice. If you need an analogy, or should I say a demonstration; this is what it means.

Telling - The man placed his hand on the Bible, the Holy Book of his faith which he was expected to only speak the truth on; and then, he began to speak angrily while trying to remain calm at the same time.

Showing - The man placed his hand on the Bible, not that he needed it to compel his truth. He spoke with a straight back, his voice seething with anger that now flashed in his eyes as he reported his statement.

In the telling, I have “told” you what a Bible is, and the significance in the scene. I have also told you that the man is angry but trying to remain composed. In the showing, I have not “told” you what the Bible is, but I have “shown” you the function by pointing out that he did not need it to compel him towards telling the truth. I have also not expressly said that he was angry, but I have “shown” anger in his tone, and his struggle for calm with his straight back, so you may conclude that he is angry but controlling it.

Now depending on who you ask, you will learn that these are not hard rules that cannot be broken. It is almost impossible to write a whole book without some telling. In fact, I will argue that some telling can aesthetically even flow better than showing in some cases. However, it is easy for me to “show” you the narrative when I am talking about a Bible. This is because culturally, you already know what it means to swear on a Bible. I do not need to tell it to you.

Now imagine instead that I was writing about a pre-colonial Igbo tribe where the mode of swearing was to place a finger on the dirt, touch it on your tongue, and then begin to speak. How would you know that this is done to call “Ani”, the Igbo conception of nature as your witness? How would you have the slightest clue what it means to lick the earth and speak if you are not told to enable you place it in cultural context.

A lot of European, Asian, and even Arab concepts, thanks to cultural productions from movies to books over the years, has resulted in so much being etched in our memory for context. Take for example, the mythical creature that is the vampire. I do not need to tell you that they cannot stand the sun. I only need to mention that they hurried through the night, dreading the rising of the sun. But when it comes to African concepts and like the monwu (masquerade) or the famous bush-babies we grew up hearing stories about - when writing for a global audience, telling is essential.

It is important that writers in the African space become more aware of the technical differences based on cultural realities. And I guess while we are on the subject, it is also important to mention that style matters. For ages, it has been expected that stories are “told” orally, mostly to children who require more detailed explanation and less conclusion by allusion. Is there room for this style in modern literature? Or do we have to kill the DNA of our storytelling foundations to fit into the new global scope?

These are the issues. This is why we are here - this is, why we write.