Two Plus Four: Major Ideas for Writers
- Show, Don’t Tell. Show and Tell? Think again!I have been standing up to the ubiquitous “show don’t tell” rule for all of my writing/editing life. People invariably quote it at conferences as justification for everything from writing a book mostly in dialogue to avoiding introspection! I don’t think most people know where the phrase comes from. But I suspect that after T.S. Eliot and the new critics began to celebrate using objects or an objective moment to show feelings rather than describing them, “show don’t tell” became short hand for make the scene come alive, don’t just tell the reader about it.I think of wonderful scenes from Shipbreaker by Paola Bacigalupi where the protagonist Nailer is crawling into the rusted bowels scavenging the skeleton tankers that are deserted on the New Orleans-like coast. Those breathtaking scenes have to be “show.” It is a moment where Nailer’s actions, minutely described, rivet us. Explaining or describing those moments would be a terrible idea. Later when The Dauntless is trying to escape the renegade ship, The Pole Star, the action is fierce, with waves and weather batter the ships as the sailors – and Nailer – ride the relentlessly wicked sea. No reader wants active scenes or moments like that only explained or described.
But never to “tell” is absurd. Think of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye without Holden Caulfield telling the readers all about his life, about his mother and father, and the private school he hopes to escape. Certainly moments come to life (“show”) in “Catcher” but the book is held together with the visionary, personality-driven telling of the main character. Think of John Green’s An Abundance of Catherines where the heartbroken Colin Singleton who, having climbed into the bathtub, internalizes about Archimedes, who is, according to Colin, the originator of the Eureka! moment. Internal dialog, yes. But “told” not “shown”!
The difficulty in not acknowledging that both are crucial in telling a story is that new writers tend to eliminate the “tell”, the internalizing, the philosophizing, the self analysis. But, isn’t that a source of originality and narrative power? Nothing like a good action scene, but when I think of great books, like Catcher in the Rye, it is in the ‘”telling” or the combination “showing” and “telling” that I get to know the character and, indeed, the story of a good book.. My advice, then, is “Don’t show when you should tell,” “Don’t tell when you should show.”
- Oranges, soup, and more! The Narrative Power in Objects: It has always intrigued me that simple objects should have so much narrative power in good fiction. Almost a transcendent power. T. S. Eliot an object that conveys, better than description, the emotional content of a character or situation in story an “objective correlative.” But, personally, that term is not down-to-earth enough for me. I prefer Tolkien’s “Tree and Leaf.” In his essay of the same name, he says to the writer, “understand the (ultimate) power of basic earth objects or elements – and use them.” Fire, a piece of wood, a stream, a stone, a tree, a leaf, the elemental stuff of our world. When I think of Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, I think ripe peach, an orange, a goldfish man, a moon.Poets know the power in the concrete object, but I say the prose writer, knowing these elements and using them, brings a resonant power and authenticity to narratives of all kinds. When I read Kate Di Camillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, a fantasy, and see how she dances around “soup”, for goodness sakes, I am amazed. The Queen died for loving it. The kingdom was governed by the rules for it! The tiny mouse Despereaux, whose story this is, was brought to his knightship by events caused by it. Soup. And Di Camillo knows this source of power! In loving this element – soup – she uses it sufficiently, repeating it, playing with it, elevating it to the status of character in its own right! She does the same for “the needle” and “red thread.”
The new writer is tentative in using objects; the experienced writer knows the absolute power of the object: tree and leaf. (If you want to be convinced of the power of using an object as almost a character, read Flannery O’Conner’s “Everything that Rises Must converge.” Notice “the hat.”)