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B. E. Hopkins is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of The Impediments to Joy (a novel) and Model Homes (a short story collection). He also teaches English at Frederick Community College in Maryland. His work has appeared in PEN International magazine, Steppe, Contrary, The Independent, and The Washington College Review, and he has translated catalogs for French artist Matthieu Kavyrchine, the Fondation Cartier, and the Fondation Christian et Yvonne Zervos. He has also written dozens of hours of courseware for NogginLabs, JetBlue, ABN-AMRO, Behavioral Tech, and other corporate clients. As an editor, he has worked for Penguin Group (USA), ...
From chapter 4 of B. E. Hopkins's The Impediments to Joy--sample art by Scott McKenzie (page 1, panel 1)
From chapter 4 of B. E. Hopkins's The Impediments to Joy--sample art by Scott McKenzie (page 1, panels 2-3)
From chapter 4 of B. E. Hopkins's The Impediments to Joy--sample art by Scott McKenzie (page 1, panels 4-5)
My short story "Kansas" is now available as an e-book in multiple formats. Charlie Dean’s real proud of his “string o’ pearls” – a long, ragged white scar running across his belly. Claims he got it the night he killed his girlfriend Sally’s old man back in Kansas. But only the bartender who was there the night before – the night Charlie done what he did – knows the true story behind that ugly old wound. Download a copy for 99 cents from Smashwords, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. Reviews are welcome and appreciated!
I’m happy to announce that Florence Colombani’s Marlon Brando, translated from the French by Lucy McNair and yours truly, was officially released today. The book tracks Brando’s career through ten iconic roles. It is available via the Phaidon store and on Amazon.
The New York Journal of Books just tweeted me their review of the English-language edition, in which Vinton Rafe McCabe writes that Colombani’s lushy illustrated biography “guarantees equal degrees of enjoyment, enlightenment, and giggling nostalgia. There is a vibrancy, a flush to the writing as if the author were pouring a glass of some very good wine and sharing anecdotes across the dinner table.”
The Anatomy of an Actor series is being launched at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. In an interview with Port magazine, Colombani talks about Brando’s legacy and her inspiration for writing the book.
Finally, if you missed it last October, check out my post called “My Afternoon with Truman Capote,” which is about the day I spent at the Library of Congress digging through Capote’s handwritten notes for a New Yorker piece called “The Duke in His Domain,” which he wrote on Brando in 1957.
I think not, Mr. Quiller-Couch.
My darlings are the best-wrought sentences and paragraphs I’m able to produce. I’m not going to strike them out simply because I recognize them as such or because they delight me as much as I hope they will my reader.
Cut the bullshit, yes… Kill the redundancy and superfluity and pomposity, sure… But my darlings are my darlings, and I love them for it.
So just you keep your goddamn hands off of them.
Nearly twenty years ago, I stumbled upon a wonderful out-of-print literary calendar called An Almanac of Words at Play. For the next three years, it was permanently checked out of the college library in my name.
The book is a self-proclaimed “three-ring circus of words” full of hilarious verse, acronyms, palindromes, and countless other word games, all written or collected by Willard Espy, a New York PR counsel and frequent contributor (back in the 1970s) to The Nation, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and other magazines.
Espy also produced two sequels, which I read compulsively throughout my early twenties. Unfortunately, the only one I own today is a battered, water-damaged copy of the first volume that an ex-girlfriend’s father managed to salvage for me from the stacks of the Strand some fifteen years ago.
One of my favorites of Espy’s games is called “Anguish Languish,” and I have been playing it for years. This morning I began composing an example while still half asleep:
Apple edge alley gents tooth Aflac udder ewe knighted stays offal Merrick ah, an toot aura pub lick four widgets dance, wan neigh shun under guard, indie viz able, wit lil’ birdie en just us fur awl.
If you read it aloud quickly, you’ll get the gist of it (and of the reason the game is called “Anguish Languish”). You might also recognize it as the fundamental technique of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Joyce, of course, does it with multivalent phrases throughout: one that often springs to my mind is “she was yung and easily freudened.”
The cleverest example I’ve seen of it appears, in bilingual form, in a little book titled Mots d’heures: Gousses, Rames. Not only does the author, Luis van Rooten, arrange French words to sound like the English Mother Goose rhymes, he also provides facetious notes to explain and justify the French. (The note on “un petit d’un petit” comments on the tragedy of children having children.) If anyone can find a copy of that little gem, please let me know!
I’ve introduced this game to many people over the years, but the only one who’s ever really taken to it is my editor/poet friend Mitch Albert, who to this day occasionally IMs me in Anguish Languish. For literary types and word lovers, Anguish Languish a fun bit of linguistic acrobatics to liven up an e-mail and to keep your brain sharp.
Why not give it a try in the comments section?
This week I finished reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which I highly recommend.
The novel reminded me of a conversation I had once while drinking with John Barth in Chestertown, Maryland. Having just finished a hilarious and tipsy rant on the stupidity of thesis and dissertation titles, Barth swerved the conversation in the direction of Italo Calvino. He said that some would call Calvino “a mere virtuoso.”
“You know what I say?” Barth concluded, pausing to take a slug of wine. “Drop the fucking ‘mere’!”
About two thirds the way through Cloud Atlas, I began asking myself, “What the hell’s this book about, exactly?” Yet at the same time, I found I really didn’t care to have a precise answer to that question. The journey that Mitchell’s six connected tales take the reader on, not to mention the author’s impressive verbal talent and ability to maintain the counterpoint between six distinct and interesting voices, is one I never considered giving up on even when I found the plot(s) wandering.
Part of me wanted the intertwined stories, whose structure mirrors the instrumental arrangement of the character Robert Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet, to be more directly interrelated. But Mitchell generally allows only the most tangential connections between each distinct tale. For me, the most compelling sections were Frobisher’s musical and sexual escapades in Zedelghem, Belgium, and the sci-fi/dytopian future sections of Sonmi~451 and Zachry (the two tales that cross over the most). There’s a great deal of wisdom and even more storytelling joy in these pages, and that was more than enough to satisfy me.
In short, Mitchell is a virtuoso–but we can definitely drop the fucking mere.
A while back, I posted that I was working on a translation for the Fondation Zervos in France. The project was meant to culminate in a Carte Blanche Exhibit at La Goulotte in Vézelay, but this fell through. In the end, the co-exhibitors, Simon Bethenod and Olivier Rignault, decided to publish the catalog as a photo book.
Early last month, just as I was finishing up a translation (with Lucy McNair) of Florence Colombani’s Marlon Brando: Anatomy of an Actor for Cahiers du cinéma (due out in May 2013), I received three copies of Là, Demeure. I am credited on the jacket flap inside the front cover.
How Kindle’s Text-to-Speech Can Help Your Writing
For a long time, I resisted the notion of buying a Kindle. I’m an old-school bound-book man, one of those who prefer the smell of acidic paper and the rustle of a turning page. As a writer, though, I can’t imagine how I ever got along without a Kindle. And here’s why…
The Kindle Keyboard and Kindle Touch both feature text-to-speech, which enables them to read aloud any document in .MOBI or .AZW e-book format. (Note, the new Kindle Paperwhite and Fire do not have text-to-speech.) For writers trying to get outside their own heads while reworking their latest article, story, book, screenplay, or poem, this technology is invaluable.
First of all, reading your own work on the Kindle’s 6” black-and-white E Ink display is helpful when revising (literally, “re-seeing”) it. The change of format alone draws you out of the comfort zones of the computer screen and the 8.5”x11” rectangle of a printed draft. Once your text has become visually unfamiliar to you, it tricks your critical faculties into regarding it as someone else’s. The Kindle even has highlighting, annotating, and sharing options that can help you with a rewrite. But the truly indispensable self-editing tool the Kindle offers is its text-to-speech.
Having your own work read back to you aloud in someone else’s voice is a surefire method for catching grammatical and logical errors, awkward turns of phrase, bad dialogue, unclear descriptions, mixed metaphors, and much more. If your ideas aren’t coming across clearly or your scene isn’t jelling, it will be far more obvious in audio than it was while you were banging away in front of your monitor. Listening takes you off the page or screen entirely, dispels writerly complacency, and forces you to hear what you’re saying in new ways.
Learning to Listen to Yourself
Though the Kindle famously once had trouble pronouncing the president’s full name, Amazon’s voice technology is remarkable. If you know the text well (as any writer does his or her own darlings), the occasional errors are but a minor nuisance. You can select a male or female voice and set the reading rate at “Slower,” “Default,” or “Faster.”
I keep my Kindle’s text-to-speech set at the default pace, and I’ve come to enjoy the steady, nasal intonation of the electronic male narrator (who, judging by how he pronounces his “abouts” and “sorrys,” hails from Canada). In a way, he’s become a kind of imaginary friend, reading my drafts back to me—with all the implied criticisms…
The Kindle Touch comes equipped with speakers and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and the volume is adjustable on the device. I plug mine into my car stereo to review the day’s work as I run errands. I find myself constantly hoping for a red light, so I can stop to jot down new ideas or voice-record notes on my smartphone.
To enable text-to-speech, you must first convert your files to .MOBI or .AZW format, which involves a few simple steps:
Too many steps? Well, there’s an even simpler way.
Each Kindle has its own e-mail address (check your Amazon account details to find out what it is). You can e-mail yourself documents and they’ll download onto your Kindle via Wi-Fi or Whispernet. In fact, to convert a .DOC or .DOCX file to .AZW automatically, simply add “free.” between the “@” and “kindle.com” in the e-mail address, and enter “Convert” in your subject line.
Simpler still, install Amazon’s free “Send to Kindle” app and upload files from your computer with a single click.
For more details, refer to the “Carrying and Reading Your Personal Documents” section of the Kindle User’s Manual or the “Kindle Personal Documents” page on Amazon.com.
Meet Your New Editor
Whether you write nonfiction, novels, screenplays, short stories, or even poetry, the Kindle is a worthwhile addition to your craft toolbox. Its text-to-speech capability serves as a 24-hour voice-for-hire who will tirelessly read back to you in a calm and uninflected tone every word you’ve written. The Kindle offers a new and engaging way to discover what your work sounds like to others, to get you out of your own head and into the mind of your reader. And isn’t that the essence of a successful rewrite?
I’m currently wrapping up a translation/review for Cahiers du cinéma, a film journal and book publisher in France. The book is part of a new series called “Anatomy of an Actor” and the first two volumes are studies of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Each volume will be a large-format photo book, and the Brando study by Florence Colombani is excellent.
Recently, the editor of the series asked me if I could stop by the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to check out a box of Truman Capote manuscripts. (The introduction of the book refers to Capote’s November 1957 New Yorker profile piece, “The Duke in His Domain”.) I’ve long wanted a good reason to get a Reader’s Card from the LOC, and having the chance to handle some original works by a famous American author was excellent motivation to plan a jaunt downtown. So yesterday I cabbed it to the Madison Building, registered, and went over the Manuscript Division to pull Box 2 of Capote’s papers.
I’ve been to the LOC in the past and looked in on the famed Reading Room, but I’ve never actually used the library as a researcher. The process you have to go through to get a card, access the Manuscript Reading Room, and handle materials took me back to my experience of getting a library card at the Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève in Paris (which I worked into a scene in my novel-in-progress as an example of French bureaucracy in action).
The Library of Congress is superbly bureaucratic—they out-French the French!—and getting in requires lots of paperwork that should have been obviated by computers decades ago. Never mind the security checks… As I wended my way through this rigmarole, though, I reminded myself that it’s all in the interest of protecting valuable documents. And the librarians really are quite helpful. The one who interviewed me to approve my request was even excited to hear that a new book on Brando is in the works. (“Did you know that throughout his childhood, his friends and family called him ‘Bud’?”—”No, I didn’t!”) Besides, considering that virtually everything published in the past couple of hundred years is in their collection, it’s fairly impressive that they can produce a box of Capote’s papers quickly upon request.
At last I found myself seated at table C-2 in the Manuscript Reading Room with a boxful of Capote’s notes. Up until I opened this box, I’d thought I would be handling typewritten pages with the author’s changes scribbled in. Instead, I was delighted to find something far more personal: handwritten journals and loose-leaf pages.
Despite being tight and minuscule, Capote’s handwriting is quite legible. Given both his script and his tendency to write only in the middle of the page, leaving huge, mostly pristine margins on all sides, you can’t help but get the sense he was one repressed individual. At the tops of some pages are notes on and highlights from what’s written below—ideas for distilling his raw materials into a final piece. But in general his copy is very clean, his prose clear and witty even in the first draft. And, of course, it’s interesting to see what he decided to delete and what he left unchanged.
Not only are these manuscript pages of interest to Capote fans, they contain some great insights into Marlon Brando, as well. There are some lovely moments, like when Brando admits he “just can’t trust anyone enough to give myself to them. So they could hurt me.” Or when he explains, “You’ve got to have love. There’s no other reason for living. Men are no different from mice. They’re born to fulfill one function. Procreate.” That sounds, indeed, like the earthy, animal love of a Stanley Kowalski or a Terry Malloy.
One of my favorites is the page where Capote asks Brando how he broke his nose. The actor ignores the question entirely and proceeds to tell him, “—by which I don’t mean that I’m always unhappy. I remember one April I was in Sicily…”
According to Colombani, Brando wasn’t much pleased with Capote after the article appeared in The New Yorker: he was uncomfortable letting anyone get too close to the real Bud…
If you’ve never held in your hands an original manuscript by an author you admire, then I suggest you trump up a research project and register at whatever local archives you have access to (you can do worse than the Library of Congress). It makes for quite an enjoyable afternoon.
While quietly flipping through these papers in the library, I felt a connection to both Brando and Capote, one that was just a bit deeper than what you get from the printed page. And holding in my hands these delicate personal papers, the pencil-scrawled words fresh from their author’s confrontation with his subject, reminded me that this is what literature’s really all about: finding moments of intimacy with people who are far away.
Of course, everyone knows the “Praise for [insert title or author’s name]” in the opening pages of a book are often just cleverly manipulated snippets meant to make a novel sound better than it is. No one in his right mind would expect an “ad card” to be a testimony of the work’s true worth. The fact that a reviewer used the word “Stunning!” “Remarkable!” or “Heartbreaking!” is meaningless—especially since you might find the full text reads “It is stunning that so atrocious a novel could have been written, much less published,” “It’s remarkable that this author ever found an agent,” or “It’s heartbreaking that the editors of this dreck were not dragged into the streets and summarily executed.”
Not only are blurb quotes twisted around so that they sometimes mean the precise opposite of what the reviewer actually said, but often the truly positive ones could only have been written by industry shills. For who else but a shill would call every thriller “edge-of-your-seat action,” or claim of every mystery that “If you start this one on a Friday, clear your schedule for the weekend … once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down!” or the classic “so-and-so is the new so-and-so-from-ten-years ago: a true master!” Can’t these people at least think of more original glowing praise than “heart-pounding,” “a roller coaster ride,” “author X’s characters are fine-drawn and true to life,” and the ten or so other stock phrases that appear in virtually every book printed?
To my mind, the only good these blurbs might occasionally serve is as a litmus test. If I’m starting up an editing project and I read the ad card and the quotes are themselves badly written or choked with inane platitudes, then I grit my teeth, buckle up my sphincter, and say to myself, “All right, here comes another meteoric turd!” At least I know what I’ve gotten myself into.
For years, I’ve slowly seethed with innocuous disdain for blurbs. But it’s all part of the business of books, take it or leave it. With so many titles published each year, the majority of them god-awful, I would expect nothing less than mendacious rephrasings and critics who do well for themselves by liking everything they read. After all, books need blurbs, right? And luckily, no matter how terrible a book is there’s probably somebody out there who likes it. If we can’t find him, we’ll just toss in some ellipses: “One of … the best … books … of the … year!”
Which brings me to the straw that broke the camel’s back: blog reviews.
Since desperate publishers started relying on blogs for reviews, the floodgates have been opened. A book has no chance in hell of getting a good word from a reputable reviewer? Screw it, quote a blogger … The inspiration for this post was, in fact, a quote topping the ad card of a generic paranormal novel. The blurb quote, which I soon learned was in fact a misquote (thankfully so, as the original was quite stupid), came from a blog with a grand total of eight followers. I took a spin through the reviewer’s site, which had all the design flair, and all the grammatical and spelling mistakes, of a thirteen-year-old’s, and I found that there wasn’t a single comment on any of the reviews he’d posted. So, here’s a reviewer that no one, not even paranormal readers, has ever heard of, expressing an opinion that has no authority (given the author’s own tentative grasp on literacy), drifting out into the void of the Internet unheard—that is, until it ends up on the ad card in a book published by a major house.
It’s embarrassing, frankly. It’s an example a stupid and aggravating practice made stupider and more annoying. I mean, why not just post a quote from the author’s mother: “My boy wrote this book, and I think it’s a humdinger!” That would at least be less misleading.
Or perhaps there’s another answer entirely: Maybe we don’t really need blurbs at all …
A few months ago, I wrote a short post called “Crimes Against the Humanities” that included a list of appalling assaults on good writing committed in a recently published bestseller.
Last week, I finished editing another title in which the English language, common sense, and storytelling itself all took a brutal pummeling. There are two passages in particular I can’t help but share here.
This first one might sneak past some readers:
The smell of regular, plain old normal coffee filled my senses and did what it alone could do to ground me in reality. Told me the world was still moving forward, regular people were working regular jobs, coffee was being brewed, all was well someone out there.
Rather than criticize the nattering inanity of “regular, plain old normal coffee”… the unintentional pun of “ground”… the trite and meaningless jibber jabber about how coffee makes the narrator feel about the world moving forward and regular normal average plain old people working average regular plain old quotidian commonplace jobs… the redundant observation that the smell of coffee tells her that coffee is being brewed… or the inscrutable concluding final climactic finale, “all was well someone out there,” I’ve decided instead to celebrate this little gem of atrocious writing by Auto-Tuning it (click the link to listen):
The same author takes a hearty dump on lucidity and English syntax in this next example:
Zay, having finished his sudden need to be social, with no more than a “How’s the tequila?” to Terric, and likely had also satisfied his curiosity of what was going on between Terric and Grant, strode over to the poker table.
Granted, it’s difficult to translate a passage like this from the German. But by the time I got to the end of this sentence, I’d forgotten that the blathering middle part was parenthetical. Coming at last to the main verb of the independent clause was a bit of a surprise—like bumping into an old acquaintance at a party, just after he’s thrown up all over himself. This sentence is so terrible and meaningless that it even sounds lousy after being Auto-Tuned (click below to listen anyway):
I could go on with further examples from this book, but unlike its author, I know when to stop writing.
Have you spotted any “Crimes Against the Humanities” lately? Post them in a comment.
If you’ve ever read a how-to guide on storytelling, taken a creative writing course, or read a blog post about fiction, then you’ve probably heard the advice “Show, don’t tell.” More than likely, you’ve heard it hundreds of times, as it’s been parroted by countless writing gurus. In fact, this advice is repeated so often that it seems to have become a veritable First Commandment of American fiction writing.
Is “Thou Shalt Not Tell” a cardinal law of writing? Far from it! There are times where an author needs to know how to tell effectively. Moreover, there are many writers who tell superbly, and even some who tell better than they show.
Showing and Scenic Representation
Before getting into an apology of telling, let’s first address the strengths of showing and identify the ineffective sort of telling that “Show, don’t tell” is meant to eliminate.
Showing’s domain is the scene. Whenever characters interact, their language and mannerisms speak for themselves. Thus, in scenic representation, it’s generally true you shouldn’t overstate that which speaks for itself.
In a scene, it’s far more striking to present the reader with an image of what you’re trying to express rather than merely telling her about it. For example, have your character throw a fit and start screaming at others rather than writing, “He became extremely angry.” When a writer relies on that “extremely” to heighten the moment, when he hopes it will carry the emotional weight of the scene for him, he fails to engage the reader’s imagination. Thus, telling can be a form of condescension.
This also explains another old saw of the writing gurus: “Avoid adverbs.” If Carol has just said, “Goddammit, James, I hate it when you yell at me!” there’s no need to add that she said it “angrily.” The dialogue alone conveys her anger clearly. In such cases, telling with an adverb is redundant and results in an overwritten scene.
The same is true of the actions and gestures you describe. If James responds by slamming a door in Carol’s face, there is hardly any reason to mention that he, too, is angry. In a well-written scene, the characters’ language and actions speak for themselves, even when they’re being ironic, sarcastic, funny, wistful, and so on.
Hemingway is a master of scenic showing. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” for example, he conveys an enormous amount of information about his characters without directly telling us anything about them or delving into their thoughts. The reader feels as though she’s overhearing a conversation, and it takes a bit of listening to realize fully what’s going on.
Hem boils this principle down to a single sentence in A Moveable Feast (though he’s talking about the end of one of his stories, not about showing): “[...] you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”
In short, within a scene, it’s often best to let what’s left unsaid speak for itself.
Writing dialogue that stands on its own and that conveys the scene naturally, dashing in a few illustrative gestures—these are effective ways to build a scene. However, it must be noted that relying on nothing but scenes can itself be a very limiting way to tell a story, and it’s not the only way. There are plenty of other narrative strategies that incorporate telling.
The Effectiveness of Telling
Scenes are certainly the driving force in a story. They are the crucibles in which characters interact, conflict, and resolve issues. Typically, the major developments of a story occur in scenes, and the reader expects the most important events to be narrated in a direct, real-time fashion. (This, too, is not always the case. Take a mystery, for example, where the most important event—the crime—occurs offstage and is ultimately narrated secondhand by the detective at the end of the story.) But if scenes are the domain of showing, then the bridges between them are, or at least can be, the domain of telling.
While scenes form the skeleton of the story, their connective tissue is often some form of telling: exposition, backstory, summary, reflection, analysis, reinforcement. Even within a scene, telling can be used to jump ahead in time or to comment directly on the situation. Understanding how and when to tell is every bit as important as knowing how to show within a scene.
Let’s say Carol has just thrown a vase at the door that James slammed in her face. The scene has climaxed, and the next will have James returning home drunk. After such an intense moment, narrative pacing might demand a short breather, a relaxation of tension so that the reader can prepare for round two. The author could jump directly into a scene of minor importance, a few pages of light dialogue to let the reader come down from an emotional high. (Segueing into a toss-off scene is the decision many commercial fiction writers would take. Some would even insert a line break in the text to imply a filmic “jump cut” to the next scene.) But this bridge between scenes could alternatively use telling to achieve one of several different effects.
A writer like George Eliot or Jane Austen might bridge the gap with a discussion of social mores, of male and female relationships, in an authoritative omniscient narrative voice that tells us how to read the preceding and upcoming scenes. Dickens might comment on the social significance of the events. Cervantes might intrude with a humorous side note or ironically poke fun at the ridiculousness of his characters. Or another author might simply fill the space with a quick summary of the time between scenes.
This is where we can see some of the advantages of telling. Not only is it an efficient way to move a longer story forward quickly or to accomplish other narrative housekeeping tasks, it also gives a story depth that showing alone cannot provide. Hemingway might be able to get through “Hills Like White Elephants” using showing alone, but Gabriel García Márquez has a snowball’s chance in hell of making it through One Hundred Years of Solitude without frequent telling sections. And there’s no way at all to have novels like Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, or Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities without a significant amount of telling. These last three examples rely on telling almost more than they do on showing. (See the examples below for more on this, as well as my article on Musil’s use of “essayism” in his fiction.) A narrative that seeks to go beneath the surface of events requires a bit of telling, and the “novel of ideas” is entirely dependent on it.
Too Much Showing?
Telling unlocks narrative techniques that are not available to other art forms. And a writer should be free to use any tool at his disposal to get his ideas across.
With the exception voice over and soliloquy, which are basically literary borrowings, films and plays are limited to what is seen and heard. They employ pure showing. A filmmaker cannot tell the viewer the same sorts of things an author can, and in most cases he wouldn’t want to—it goes against the nature of his art. Film and theater have their own unique strengths and limitations. So, too, does literature.
The telling toolbox (non-scenic representation) belongs almost exclusively to literature. When a story only shows in its narratives, when a novel uses only scenes and does not include any summary or argument or exposition, it might as well be a film or a play. And to my mind, a novel that could just as easily be a film is no novel at all, for it doesn’t use the full range of techniques available to the author and certainly doesn’t push the limits of its form. Such a book is merely an imitation of another art form.
A novel is weakened when it relies solely on filmic techniques. If you’ve ever read a book by Dan Brown or Harlan Coben, you’ll understand what I mean. A novel should be a novel, not a film treatment. In that sense, most commercial fiction is not “literary” at all, and how-to guides and fiction professors who preach “Show, don’t tell” as dogma instill an impoverished approach to short story and novel writing. (More on this below.)
A Better Approach to the Case of Show v. Tell
Rather than taking “Show, don’t tell” as an eternal law passed down from the fiction gods on high, it’s more effective to think about showing and telling as the extremes of a narratological spectrum (represented by the x axis above). However, your decisions about whether to show or to tell are intimately associated with your choices regarding your narrator and the revelation of information in the story. These, too, are spectra, and they in turn help to determine where on the showing/telling spectrum the narrative might fall.
Narrative voice is represented above by an y axis perpendicular to x. Here we can plot the level of narrator consciousness from very limited to all-knowing and from first to third person.* Your narrator might be a first-person witness to events with little ability to comment on them (Benjy in The Sound and the Fury), a witness who is capable of seeing deeper than those around him (Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby), a detached third-person narrator who can dip into a single character’s mind (as in the Harry Potter series) or one who can slip in and out of omniscience and the subjective experience of the protagonist (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and, in a more complex way, Ulysses), or a truly omniscient narrator who can plunge into any character’s mind at will (as used in most epics, from Homer to Tolkien).
Finally, perpendicular to x and y, the z axis plots the level of detail the narrator uses, as expressed by the compression of time employed. This can range from an extreme condensation of time (a summary of years reduced to a matter of pages, as in the middle part of To the Lighthouse) to the standard real-time scene (“Hills Like White Elephants”) to a slowing down of time within a scene (as when a character becomes absorbed in something and the narrative slows down to explore it in microscopic detail, or stream of consciousness narratives).
Naturally, the narrator choice and the representation of time in a story will determine the showiness or telliness of the narrative. Returning to the x axis, then… On the showing end, we have things like most films or plays, as well as Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” On the far side of telling, we have Grimm’s fairy tales, epics, The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. And in between is a vast array of books that use both showing and telling effectively, works that shift into scenes effectively and seamlessly. Indeed, the vast majority of novels do use both showing and telling as time is compressed or elongated and per the narrator’s capacity to go into more or less detail about events.
*Second person is just a variety of third person, since “you” are never really the narrator but merely the subject of the narration.
A Few Examples of Telling
There are countless examples in literature of effective telling. Older stories, epics, fairy tales, etc., often tell much more than they show. You can find a sort of “pure telling,” for example, in Aesop, Homer, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and even Edgar Allen Poe and O.Henry.
The tales these writers (or their narrators) recount use scenes sparingly. The stories are usually told in broad strokes and time is densely compressed. In a tale, it is more appropriate to say “The queen was angry, and she punished her stepdaughter by locking her in a tower,” rather than rendering it as a subtle scene that shows.
The downside of tales is that they are coarse-grained and less vividly “real” than a scenic story; the benefit is that they tend to be short and highly memorable.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs as infinitum! What does this mad myth signify.
Whether you like Kundera or not (I used to love him as an undergraduate, before I’d read much of the philosophy he refers to in his books, and today I find him more than a little tedious and sometimes downright wrong about the works he refers to), you have to admit that he has a distinctive style. His books are meticulously crafted, and the “essayism” of his approach pulls his books along every bit as much as his scenes do. Indeed, rarely does a scene go by without some commentary from the narrator, some type of telling.
American and British readers seem to dislike this kind of writing, and prefer purely scenic books (the uninterrupted narrative dream that John Gardner describes in his guide for young writers). The rest of the world, however, especially Europe, is apparently less disturbed by the author/narrator coming in and telling them something. To my mind, it is precisely the “telling” aspect of the European novel that allows them to be both literary and philosophical. There is a reason America has produced Hemingway and not Musil. We don’t like novels that intellectualize or shift into essay—we prefer a seamless show.
Even our most intellectual writers tend to prefer showing to telling. Essayistic fiction is a rarity in America, and our most sensitive and intelligent authors treat very realistic subjects in very realistic terms, with little philosophizing from the narrator. An author like Jonathan Frazen says a great deal about American society in his books, but he generally does so in a self-effacing style.
The “contemporary American voice,” if such a thing exists, is a kind of stripped-down Flaubert. For as much as Flaubert intended to remove himself from the narrative, his gorgeous, unmistakable style keeps him in it. James Joyce’s does too. Commercial American writers are indistinguishable precisely because they use the same flat, bland language and the same “Show, don’t tell” approach to their narrative structure.
Tropic of Cancer
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue to be bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. They hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in a step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.
I’m not sure what this is, but it isn’t showing. It is a particular type of telling, one that relates events but that does so in a way that is far more concerned with language than with plot.
Miller’s books are about language first and foremost. He’s the fictional equivalent of Walt Whitman, full of great torrents of words, words, words, overflowing with contradiction. Plot and even character (aside from the narrator’s) are of little concern, and the stories he tells are more like what you might hear on a stoop in Brooklyn or a trottoir in Paris than the neatly packaged fictions of other writers.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
This is a description of a sort, but not really. It does not show, exactly, but rather conjures. It is completely absorbed in the author’s style. It goes beyond mere showing.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
General description, pure telling so infused with poetry that it evokes the world we are about enter.
And yet, Nabokov moves into chapter 2 in such a straightforward telling mode:
I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl, daughter of Jerome Dunn, the alpinist, and granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects—paleopedology and Aeolian harps, respectively. […]
This is pure telling. But it is told crisply, clearly, and with a dash of humor.
Political novels often use telling to educate the reader on the required history and philosophy. (Even Dan Brown tells us all we need to know about the history of the Templars through exposition.) Consider how much telling there is in George Orwell’s 1984 or Richard Wright’s Native Son (specifically, once the action moves to the courtroom). Telling is fine as long as you are writer enough to do it interestingly…
No need to quote from The Man Without Qualities. Practically the whole book is told. Musil barely even bothers with scenes, and when he does set them up, he seldom stays in them. Instead, he resorts to summary and essayism. The book is dense and deeply philosophical, but it does not feel quite like a typical novel.
A lot of experimental fiction relies on telling. Authors like David Foster Wallace and Junot Díaz use telling to create a sense of playfulness. Their books are far more novel-like than Musil’s, but they have nothing in common with the movie treatments of more commercial authors.
In all of these case, the work is often as much about the language and style as it is the story and characters. They are all intertwined.
Why Then Are We Obsessed with Showing?
Writing instruction depends on blanket proscriptions like “Show, don’t tell” precisely because good writing is so hard to teach. The problem is the reverse of one found in literature courses.
In Literature 101, the texts are typically chosen for their difficulty: the density of historical or literary references, the use of complex language and opaque symbolism. In a way, it’s actually easier to teach a class on Ulysses because there’s so much to explain and break down, so much meaning that the average reader might simply miss without a background in Irish history, European literature, mythology, and a huge vocabulary. Teaching a class on Henry Miller, on the other hand, is less common then perhaps because the text itself is so self-evident: to read Miller is to understand what he is trying to do in his fiction. The same is true with Dickens, a staple of high school literature classes, who is less likely to be included in a college survey course. These two might be studied in the context of cultural history, as examples. But the kind of textual analysis that Samuel Beckett demands is not really required when reading Trollope.
For writing instructors, the opposite is true. Since great literature is highly original and idiosyncratic and tends to break the so-called “rules” of fiction writing with narratological legerdemain, there’s little hope of offering simple tricks to students to make them the next Virginia Woolf. Instead, how-to writing guides and classes can, at best, teach students how to write like Dan Brown: that is, in a tried-and-true formulaic, albeit efficient, fashion.
Although “Show, don’t tell” is not bad advice, it is given far too indiscriminately. The examples to which it is applied are usually straw men: they’re typically just examples of clumsy writing rather than illustrations of some unbreakable rule. Since there is no easy cure for a writer who just isn’t very good at putting words together, the mantra “Show, don’t tell” will not much improve a work by an author of little talent.
But the obsession with showing in MFA programs and writing guides is also indicative of two truths about mainstream contemporary American fiction, as already touched upon. It is split between commercial writers who write what really amount to film treatments rather than novels (because they are more salable), and literary fiction writers who are stuck in a late modernist fictional mode.*
*I am speaking very broadly here, and that there are, of course, dozens of counterexamples to these trends. Naturally, there are excellent writers in all genres and forms who make narrative decisions in full consciousness of their ramifications.
So In Short…
In scenes, make your characters’ emotions and attitudes self-evident in their words and actions (or just as ambiguous as they need to be). In the bridges between scenes, strive to evoke what you are describing rather than being too literal. But recognize where it’s easier just to tell us something rather than spending the time to show it scenically. Finally, never be afraid to make an unconventional narrative choice when you think it suits the story, and use the full range of techniques available to you as an author.
Add a comment to share your reactions and your own experiences with the case of Show v. Tell.