Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, December 29, 2008

Show, Don't Tell

One of the rules of thumb recommended to the beginning fiction writer is: Show, don't tell. Why is this so important? Fair question. In short, that which is shown has more dramatic and emotional impact. For example, say you've got a character who's just received shattering news. You could tell what's going on by saying something like, "Richard took the news hard. He had to sit down to absorb it." On the the other hand, you don't even have to tell the reader how he took the news. Instead you could describe the way his jaw dropped and the way his hands began to shake. You could describe the expression on his face and the way his knees went weak so that he had to sit down. The reader would draw the inevitable conclusion, that the character was devastated.

There are a lot of classic novels that do a lot more telling than showing, but things began to change with the advent of movies and, later, television. People became accustomed to seeing characters fall in love, rage against fate, and even die, right there in front of their eyes in emotionally wrenching scenes, and they weren't going to accept anything less from their reading. It certainly made things more difficult for the writer. He now had to show the reader just what happened but framed in such a way as to evoke a desired reaction. The work of the imagination became much more demanding. If you are going to "show" convincingly, you have to understand how a character will react in detail - the expression on his face, his body language, the tone of his voice.

That brings me to the point of this post. "Telling" is often an excuse for lazy writing. When I said that Richard took the news hard, and had to sit down, that was it. I didn't have to worry about how he reacted in detail. I've already told the reader what's going on. You see a lot of this kind of lazy writing in pop fiction where the plot is everything and a strong plot can carry a book, particularly one without great ambitions.

Last week I was on the National Public Radio web site checking out their books of the year for 2008. I noticed another section about books that slipped under the radar. One of those books was The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan. He's an Aussie, but he's no Tim Winton. His story is interesting, but he's one of the sloppiest writers I've read in a while, at least among those who are seriously attempting to produce literature, and there's no doubt that Flanagan is trying to do that. He has a page at the back of the book called "A Note on Sources" that makes it clear. The only conclusion that I can draw is that he is only interested in the story, and that the language is of secondary concern, if that.

I don't understand why the NPR reviewer didn't call Flanagan to task for his lazy writing. Their reviewers are usually a couple of notches above the Oprah Book Club types. Perhaps they've become infected with the new orthodoxy that seems to have made its way into the New York literary establishment, the one that refuses to say anything negative about an author's work. Bah to that, I say. Bring out the scalpels. The more blood on the literary floors, the better.


Anonymous decatur barbara said...

If that's how you feel you are going to LOVE this excellent bit of surgery done on Tom Friedman of NYT fame.


2:24 PM  

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