Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Show and tell: not just for elementary school.
Poster by eypril
Today we continue our discussion of my Monday night class at Grub Street: The Rules of Writing: How to Use Them & When To Break Them, taught by Joan Wickersham.
Show, don't tell.
Man, you just hear it EVERYWHERE, don't you? But what the heck does it really mean? Yes, it's way better to have your character's brow furrow and his face get red and his jaw clench than to write, "Then he got angry." But, if taken too literally, you're not allowed to say "he brushed his teeth" because you instead have to describe the picking up of the brush, the running of the water, the application of the toothpaste... I'm already boring myself here.
How do you find the happy medium?
Joan rewrote the "show, don't tell" rule as: Show and tell. Show what needs to be shown, but don't neglect the possibility of narration, and don't fear the unexpected.
Let's consider a few examples to make this point. (Ha! Showing!)
First, let's take the start of Hemingway's short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Pure dialogue. A man and a woman. He is talking about "how it ends" and "the odour" and she is telling him not to talk. Large "obscene" birds fly and land around them. She asks if she can do anything, and he says maybe taking off the leg... or just shoot him.
Joan said, and I agree, that this is as close to pure showing as you can get. What isn't being said here? That the man is dying of gangrene, the vultures are circling, and he's pushing away the woman who loves him. By showing instead of telling, there's a certain mystery and immediacy to the story (it's like you're sitting next to them), a prolonging of the moment (it's 3 pages in before Hemingway confirms your suspicions by saying it's gangrene in the man's right leg), and the reader is given the ability to discover for him/herself what is going on. Hemingway's not out to confuse you, he's out to shock you. To let you have that moment of realization on your own.
In contrast, there's the scene in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies) where Darcy is asking for Elizabeth's hand in marriage. There's almost no dialogue at all. Instead, we are told what Elizabeth is thinking as the narration follows her thought process. Now, there's certainly some showing (e.g. we see Darcy pacing before the proposal instead of reading "he was agitated") but mostly it's just one character's internal voice about how arrogant this jerk is. Why does telling work here?
There's the issue of focus: let's face it, we don't CARE what words Darcy uses here. It's a rotten proposal, and we care more about what's going on in Elizabeth's head during his speech than we do about the speech itself. (And, if you want to get really fancy, Austen is in a way showing that Elizabeth has probably tuned out the exact words of the proposal herself, due to the way it is being presented.) There's also the issue of pacing: just as Hemingway slows down the discovery of the gangrene, Austen speeds up your discovery of Darcy's arrogance. Because we don't need leisurely discovery, we need to understand the fallout afterwards.
Here's my own theory as to what both excerpts have in common: both writers make you avert your eyes from the key subject matter of the story. In another class I took, the instructor said that a the in-class writing assignment crafted by one student worked so well because the most heartbreaking material was handled with restraint. This understatement, this avoidance of telling the reader the heart of the matter so that s/he can bring his/her own emotions to the book rather than having them supplanted by the writer's experiences and expectations, is in my opinion what makes the pieces work. The heart of the story is that a man is dying... wait. Don't reveal it right away. The heart of the scene is that this proposal is garbage... don't quote the proposal. In the case of William Maxwell's novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, there's a scene where the author shows the pain a boy has felt by being ripped away from his home by showing only the things he has been forced to leave behind. The author shows restraint by taking the boy out of the scene. And I think the passage pretty universally knocked the class on its collective butt.
It's all about pacing, and focus, and not robbing the reader of the most vital experiences in reading. Now... go forth and experiment.