Tell, Don’t Show?: The Curious Method of Anthony Trollope

People generally advise writers to hint at things through the characters’ actions and words rather than reveal things forthrightly through the narrative.  This rule is referred to as “Show, Don’t Tell,” and many people have told me to follow it–slightly more times than people have told me to add more detail to particular scenes.  Yet, readers are all unique: the details desired by one another can live without.  Generally, the rule of “Show, Don’t Tell” ought to be followed; but, Terry Brooks in his work on writing, Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, reminds us that there is only one rule which must never be broken: “Don’t Bore the Reader.”  One may understand it as the overarching rule from which the others derive.  Depending on the writer, one can conceivably deep-six one or several others as long as this one is adhered to.


But, I have always thought that there would be dire consequences to explaining away too much.  Then, I read, or rather listened to, an audiobook of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers.  He literally defenestrates this rule from the onset.  Not only does he defenestrate it, but he tells the reader that he despises the authorial technique of the writer holding back details and keeping the reader in suspense for what is often a banal ending.  Instead, he makes a pact with the reader with the result that, as much as possible, the reader will know everything he, the writer, knows!

Verily, the novel contains no spoilers, because the author holds nothing back.  When we fear lest Eleanor Bold will be seduced by the conniving Mr. Slope, Trollope tells us that should not think so poorly of Eleanor, because that does not happen.  From the moment Eleanor and Mr. Arabin start talking pleasantly to each other, Trollope leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that they have fallen in love and intimates that they will marry.  Also, he paints full biographical and personal depictions of each major and some secondary characters.  These characters have such complete and realistic portraits that the pages practically bleed.  If Trollope cannot tell us at a certain moment in time exactly what a character is thinking and feeling, it is sure to be described later.


At this point, my dear readers are saying: “Trollope can’t get away with that!  This novel must be atrociously boring!”  No, the novel is fascinating.  I mentioned how the pages practically bleed for their vividness and realism.  How the characters interact on the pages has one spellbound.  Also, Trollope is a wise man doubly gifted with commonsense and indulgence towards the failings of his fellow men.  Within these pages, he gives his opinion on virtually everything, and one could almost wish Barchester Towers were one long essay.  The closest person to Trollope in his ability to create absorbing digressions in a work of fiction would have to be none other than G. K. Chesterton.

So, it turns out that you can break to pieces the rule of “Show, Don’t Tell,” but you had better be a modern day Trollope!

One thought on “Tell, Don’t Show?: The Curious Method of Anthony Trollope

  1. schillingklaus says:

    I detest and boycott all fiction that shows instead of telling; consequently, I will not be deterred by any of your propaganda from telling massively and shemelssly instead of showing.

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