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June 19, 2008

On "Show, Don't Tell"

“I think, frankly, it’s a bit like behaviorism or something. I really wonder how much of it carries over from science, I mean really crude science as understood in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century– that there’s something illusory about thought and that in fact it’s behaviour that counts, and only behavior, when in fact people’s brains are buzzing all the time. People are to an incredible degree constituted of what they never say, perhaps never consciously think. Behaviour is conventionalized and circumstantial. In many cases, the behaviour that in fact would express what someone thinks or feels is frustrated, cannot occur. Here we are, basically organized to carry this big brain around, and it’s absolutely bizarre to act as if what goes on there is not part of the story.” –Marilynne Robinson, The Believe Book of Writers Talking to Writers

2 thoughts on “On "Show, Don't Tell"”

  1. ragdoll says:

    It’s hard not to agree with Marilynne Robinson, who is one of the most technically brilliant writers I’ve ever read. But there’s a difference between “telling” something that would be better suited to a longer, more scenic route in storytelling, and the idea that what goes on in a character’s mind needs to be ignored. Either way, great quote.

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    But delving into a character’s psychology is a form of showing, not telling. Henry James, the most psychological of writers, never told us a thing about his characters. There’s a difference between saying, “So-and-so was afraid” and presenting that person’s state of mind for the reader by laying out his or her psychological contortions and machinations.

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