My 7-year-old daughter is presently obsessed – like, watching every episode three times on BBC’s iPlayer obsessed – by a Children’s BBC show called “The Next Step.”
I have grown somewhat used to children’s TV over the past 14 years; most of what the BBC, in particular, broadcasts is of some worth. Some of it is in dubious taste, but funny and educational; some of it really rather charming.
When it comes to “The Next Step,” however, I’d rather watch almost anything else.
It would be a difficult decision to decide between watching the show or a One Direction video. I stand up and leave the room when the show comes on.
Recently, I finally worked out why: it is far too like bad preaching. And I hate bad preaching (particularly when I am the preacher).
The show is set in a dance school and is a mock reality show, so after every little event we cut to the protagonists and the observers speaking to camera explaining what they were feeling and why they reacted like they did.
This falls foul of the most basic rule of storytelling for adult audiences: “Show; don’t tell.”
Applied to adult fiction writing, “show; don’t tell” is an instruction to demonstrate your character’s feelings, rather than announcing them.
Of course, for a 7-year-old, cutting to a character explaining in detail her motivation (“I said that because I was pleased that she failed the audition after what she said to my boyfriend last week…”) allows the child to follow more complex and emotionally satisfying narrative arcs than she might otherwise find comprehensible, and so makes the show attractive.
For any adult viewer or reader, however, telling instead of showing is boring and insufferably patronizing and so must be completely avoided in any narrative remotely worth reading.
For example, Vladimir Nabokov never tells us that Humbert is infatuated with Lolita, and J.R.R. Tolkien never tells us that the ring is an increasing burden for Frodo. He allows us to overhear Frodo telling Sam about it from time to time, but that is different.
By contrast, E.L. James tells us about twice every page that Anastasia finds Christian Gray’s riches and arrogance unaccountably attractive.
It must be avoided in any discourse worth hearing, also.
I am presently preparing once again to teach a brief class on homiletics. One of the maxims I offer to, and explore with, my students comes from Michael Quicke, who, more than any other, taught me to preach.
Quicke proposed that as well as saying what the text says, a good sermon does what the text does. In other words, “show, don’t tell.”
Bad preaching is often marked by such comments as, “This is a really exciting passage.”
No, don’t tell me it’s exciting; make me feel excited. There’s a world of difference.
Bad preaching is like a stand-up comedian saying, “and what happened next was really funny because it turned out that the woman I’d been talking to was my girlfriend’s sister.” Tell the joke; don’t explain how it works.
Of course, it’s much easier to explain the joke or the biblical passage, particularly because, in preaching, commentators have done all that work for us.
“This parable would have shocked and offended the hearers,” we are told, feeling utterly unshocked and unoffended ourselves.
And so the parable drifts over us in being preached, never touching our hearts and our guts, which is where it was aimed. And which is where it must be aimed again if it is to do its work.
Bad preaching is a description of how the text did its work; good preaching is an event in which the text does its work again, provoking, inspiring, challenging, questioning, undermining, destabilizing, reassuring or whatever its purpose is.
Don’t tell me how the text might once have made someone like me feel; make me feel it – show, don’t tell.
Stephen Holmes is a Baptist minister, presently employed as senior lecturer in Theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveRHolmes.