Forget “Show, Don’t Tell” — Better advice is “Show, Tell, Show”

FrauWritingDr. Stephen Carver at Blot the Skrip and Jar It has laid down a list of the “Top Ten Writing Mistakes Editors See Every Day.”

They’re all pretty good, but the most striking bit of advice is number 5, failure to understand dramatic pacing. Carver turns the dead-horse cliché of “show, don’t tell” on its head by examining two complementary narrative styles, the mimetic (showing) and diegetic (telling). These two storytelling modes have actually been around since ancient Greece when they were known as μίμησις and διήγησις.

Just like yin and yang, these two must be in balance. In a good story, you have to go back and forth between the real-time narration of the mimetic mode and the explanatory narration of the diegetic mode.

To give the mimeticists behind “show, don’t tell” their due, a story should rest primarily in the mimetic, with occasional forays into diegesis to provide context for what’s going on in real-time. As a Taoist creative writing instructor would put it: know how to use the (diegetic) yang, but largely keep to the (mimetic) yin.

For example, mimesis in green and diegesis in blue:

“Have you seen my blue highlighter?”

“Nope,” I said and picked up my cup of highlighters to show him they were every color except blue. I even rattled it for him. He didn’t appreciate it.

“I’m going to a meeting and all I have are legal pads and yellow highlighters. You can’t highlight yellow on yellow.”

The last time Bill lost office supplies, he stopped just short of accusing everyone in the office of conspiracy to commit theft. It was only after hours wasted searching everywhere from the restroom stalls to the break room refrigerator that he found the missing scissors under his own desk.

“You can borrow my green highlighter if you want.”

Bill glared at me. “That doesn’t explain who took my blue highlighter!”

Here’s how Carver explains the relationship between the mimetic and diegetic, but go read the whole list.

Maintaining a strong, page-turning momentum requires an understanding of narrative pace. Basically, you have two gears: ‘Mimetic’ narration is a ‘slow telling,’ which dramatically stages events for the reader, creating the illusion that these events are unfolding in real time. ‘Diegetic’ narration is rapid, panoramic, and summary, communicating essential or linking information efficiently, without the illusion of reality. The diegetic narrator says what happens, without trying to show things as they happen. Prose narratives necessarily use both modes of telling: a fully mimetic story would last forever while a totally diegetic one would just be a plot summary. Aim for balance, ebb and flow; don’t get stuck in one gear. I have read many novels in which far too many trivial and tangential scenes are portrayed mimetically, like the live stream of a reality TV show, in which both primary and secondary characters randomly display and repeat their typical behaviour. Equally, I’ve read many primarily diegetic novels, with much of the plot told and not shown, as they say, in which the prose feels more like an essay than a story.


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