Showing and Telling: One dotty difference between art and science

I was just imagining the differences between the messages of artists and those of scientists — creators and communicators. Both are forms of expression and both pass on messages to an audience: ideas, feelings, information, all thunderous clouds of brain charge.

Often, the purpose of art or fiction is to pass on experiences and ideas to the audience. And often, the purpose of science or non-fiction is to pass on information. The best works of expression do both, regardless of genre. But either way, the goals of creators and communicators are the same: transmit the message to the audience. But a simple and significant difference is how accurately artists or scientists choose to transmit their messages: showing or telling.

The job of a science or news communicator is straight-forward. Take the story as they understand it (as it is in their minds) and pass it on to the audience as accurately as possible. This is a game of replication. How perfectly can the communicator transmit their idea to another, replicating the idea in both minds?

There are three components to a successful transmission: the communicator, the medium, and the audience. Right now, I am conveying an idea to you via words. Since my mind is inaccessible, and your mind is inaccessible, all we have to rely upon is this medium. And until sci-fi becomes a reality, this medium is the closest we can come to mind-reading, from me to you.

This might be a poor analogy, but imagine if ideas could only be expressed via remote ‘dot-to-dots’ or ‘join the dots’ with no other form of communication possible. Say the communicator wants to transmit the thought of a lion. They begin remotely sending dots to the receiver.

Imagine the defining features of a lion. How would you convey a lion if you only had 20 dots to use? One of the biggest hurdles as a communicator is to replicate the mental dot puzzle down onto the page for others to interpret. Were the eyes dotted out? The nose? The ears? The transmitter forgets to dot out the ‘mane’, so the receiver interprets the puzzle as any one of the big cats. It is easy to forget to dot down some fundamental thing. Maybe the little tuft on the end of the lion’s tail is the final puzzle piece.

Often the order of the dots is important too. The communicator must hold hands with the audience, walking them through the order of the dots. This is structure and it helps in connecting the dots with confidence.

Artists transmit feelings, experiences, ideas, not sequential facts. I am no artist, but art might be setting up dot puzzles with no final image in mind. What if the receiver were to connect the dots and create an image more grand and satisfying than anything the artist could have ever intended?

This might be why lyrics are so beautiful. People personally claim songs as if they wrote them: ‘this is my song’, ‘this is our song’. The songwriter or poet cannot write a book in a song, they are limited. The artist has only a pocket-full of dots. They place them about; some with intention, some with whimsy. The listener of the song hears fragments of the message and draws their own personal interpretation, infinitely more fulfilling than the artist’s intent.

The same is true of creative writing, where there are no descriptions; there is the reader’s imagination. Show, don’t tell.

Of course, these ideas of dots, creators, and communicators, are all gross oversimplifications of a, thankfully, rich world of expression. There is art so clear, descriptive, and vivid that it is real. And there is science so emotive and abstract that it is awe inspiring or heartbreaking.

I am no artist, because I have an addiction to dots and hand holding. My passion is science and explaining science. In committing myself to a life of explanation, I have lost the art of mystery and dot withholding. But that’s okay, I’m happy to tell, and not show.

Feature image: Wikimedia Commons/User:Caesar/CC BY-SA 3.0