Telling vs. Showing: A Privilege of the First Person POV

Even though one is not supposed to wear the editor’s hat while writing a first draft, I found myself doing so yesterday, forcing myself to stop and go back and show versus tell. I did this in a couple of places before questioning myself.  Was the result of my pruning what I had really envisioned?

I also found myself freehanding long passages of exposition, telling’s nearly verboten cousin. Some of it will, of course, need to be weeded. I’m fine with that. But one of the reasons I enjoy writing from the first person point of view is interiority and all aspects of anything even approaching that.

What’s that? You don’t think telling and exposition are quite the same thing as interiority? Again, not exactly, but they certainly share traits. They involve explanation, sometimes at length. They hold up a mirror rather than a camera.

A few years ago my husband and I visited Rome. I had been so looking forward to seeing the famed Sistine Chapel. In my head it was going to be this small, remote chapel with a starry-skied, hazy ceiling filled with pews and walled with stucco. We would quietly file in, spend some time in the silent near darkness, contemplating the art.

Had I but looked once at it online I would have known this was not at all what we would encounter. The chapel is, of course, part of the Vatican. It is a loud, crowded room where you are shushed every two minutes and given the stink eye if you raise your camera. You are not at all encouraged to linger or meditate upon the painted ceiling.

My point is that somehow I got the impression of what I thought the chapel would be like from something I read, and that impression stayed with me until I was disappointed by reality. Telling has a charm that showing sometimes does not.

Telling is also where the “eye of the beholder” comes in. The picture the beholder can give us often trumps the actual place or experience, and sometimes it is more valuable to us. When I was a child, I used to pester my father to tell me what my grandfather, who was deceased, had been like. I was only three when he passed. My father’s description of him has left a longing and a vision of the man that I doubt would have been there had I known him, not because he wasn’t a lovely man, because by all accounts he was, but because no mere mortal can live up to the “true” stories that are doubtless embellished and inflated. I write because he wrote; I have always tried to play guitar because he did. This was all based on the stories my father told me about him, and on the photos of him playing guitar and the picture of me sitting on his lap. He looked utterly blissful to be holding me. (I should insert that photo here, but it may be at my parents’ home. TK, let us say, in editor speak.)

I’m a thought junkie. One of my favorite books is Of Human Bondage. I remember saying when I read it that I wished the man would stop with the story, already, and just talk to me! Because when he used (albeit not in first person, true) telling, he lit circuits in my brain. Give me beautiful things to think about and I’m yours! While showing lends us beautiful images, telling gives us ideas to consider.

So if you want my storytelling skills, you’re just going to have to be patient at times when I tell you, rather than show you. If I do it right, maybe you’ll even want to hear more and see less.  Or not.  But if I’m writing in the first person POV, rest assured that I’m going to take that privilege. Let’s hope it pays off.

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2 thoughts on “Telling vs. Showing: A Privilege of the First Person POV

  1. It seems like most authors of the past were tell-ers rather than show-ers and I loved them. One of my favorite authors, MM Kaye who wrote The Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon told muh of those stories brilliantly. Sadly, in the day we live in, people won’t take the time to read a lot of exposition. My professional editor raps my knuckles for telling unless I keep it deep in the POV. That should work if you’re in first person.
    That’s too bad about the Sistine Chapel! How disappointing.

  2. Danni, I think you’re exactly right that some readers just will not take the time to read exposition. And I can understand that some of it can get tedious unless a person is really into the subject being discussed, but when I enjoy a subject, I don’t mind detours, I guess.

    I don’t know MM Kaye. I will have to do some investigating! 🙂

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