Posted by: Corri van de Stege | April 5, 2008

Showing and Telling

Can there be such a thing as too much showing and not enough telling in a novel?  I was wondering about this reading Julie Walters’ Maggie’s Tree.  The book tumbles from one conversation and scene to another, involving the different characters. I feel I have no space or time to settle down with them though.  You can almost hear Julie Walters rattling on in one of her films or plays – say in Educating Rita.  I am a great admirer of her acting in the latter film and the book is not remotely about a character like Rita, don’t get me wrong.  Maggie’s Tree is a cleverly put together story of a couple of actresses and their relationships with each other and partners.  Two of the characters suffer from breakdown and between them are able to create mayhem.  The reasons for these breakdowns become more and more obvious as you hurtle through a snowbound New York with them and their friends and partners. 
   I wonder about the showing and the telling, which every self respecting writing course tells you to keep in high regard and this book does as instructed.  I suspect though that too much showing begins to make you feel giddy and it almost becomes like watching a fast movie or play, where the writer’s images are the only ones that you can see, everything is made visible, there is little space for input from the reader or space for the reader to savour the images and enjoy them for the sake of the words or the sentences.  And so, the what happens next question becomes the overriding one and you skip bits to get to the end and be done with it.
   Or was I simply impatient and in the wrong frame of mind to read this book?  The story is a good one and holds together well.  It is also quite funny at times, despite all the tragedy and everything works out ok in he end for everyone concerned.  Like watching a film and thinking that was ok – not the best of movies but definitely not the worst either!


  1. I haven’t read the book, but I have read books where I thought there was too much showing-too much detail and scene setting, too much description of a person’s physical form, etc.

    Sometimes I think writers do this when the story itself is weak, and sometimes I think it is to lead the reader very carefully down a single visual path that the author has decided upon.

    Either way, it doesn’t make for very enjoyable reading.

  2. I’m feeling something similar as I read Sorry, by Gail Jones. It’s longlisted for the Orange Prize, but I don’t think I’ll be pulling for it too hard. Time will tell.

  3. To achieve a perfect equilibrium in a novel is authors’ most sought after aim . Not all of them succeed, that’s why they are liked or not.

    Excessive narration or too many dialogues are aspects which too many modern writers sink themselves into.

  4. Nancy – nice to meet you and I will link to your site. Yes definitely, it does take away the enjoyment, although in defence of this book, the story line was quite fun and the author does have a sense of humour.
    Andi: that then means I can take one book of my ‘to read list’ 🙂
    Jose, absolutely, there’s too much of it now, and it’s difficult to tell beforehand as all and sundry have good quotes on the covers! And lovely to see you again. x

  5. Promotion is too often the worst enemy of readers. Many form their opinions from it, so in a way that is trying to influence readers’ opinions.

    Blogs like this help to counter those deceitful promotions.

    I read this blog daily, only that sometimes I have nothing to say on the contents of blogs and comments.

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