I’m teaching a class this weekend at a small writers’ conference. The topic of my little one-hour workshop is “Show, Don’t Tell.” I doubt Jane Austen ever worried about it, but most modern writers have heard this criticism enough to hate the mention of it. For benefit of the uninitiated, it means learning to convey crucial information about character and emotion without coming right out and telling the reader in so many words. Instead of “telling” the fact that Tom is cruel and unfeeling, for instance, we “show” him kicking a dog and stealing candy from children. Simplistic example, but you get the idea.
So, for my Jane Austen quote, I searched high and low for something with the words show and/or tell. Here’s what I found:
“You will not ask me what is the point of envy. – You are determined, I see to have no curiosity. – You are wise – but I cannot be wise. Emma, I must tell what you will not ask, though I may wish it unsaid the next moment.” (Emma, chapter 49).
Here, Mr. Knightley is about to “tell” Emma that he’s in love with her. If only he’d attended my class first! Then he would have known that he’d get his point across more effectively by “showing” Emma how he feels instead. To quote from my lecture notes: Use “showing” whenever you want to make a deep impression, when you want the reader to notice, feel, or infer something. If you substitute “Emma” for “reader”, the advice fits pretty well. Mr. Knightley certainly wanted to make a strong, favorable impression on Emma. He hoped she would notice what a great catch he was, feel something for him in return, and infer that marriage to the handsome owner of Donwell Abbey would be the most pleasant thing imaginable.
Despite violating this tested literary principle, Mr. Knightley did eventually succeed in communicating his affection and was then assured that Emma reciprocated. But think of all the intervening grief (Emma paining him by refusing to listen, then calling him her “friend”) he would have been spared had he simply kissed her. I think she would have drawn the right conclusions – no “telling” required.