Show, Not Tell

Advance readers have begun reporting back, and if there is a consensus about the book, it is that I have managed to create a sense of place.  A reader from central California says the writing reminds her of Steinbeck’s descriptions of the Salinas Valley.  Another, who grew up outside of St. Louis, is reminded of visits to see relatives in the small towns and farms of Missouri.  Yet another sees the prelude to the novel as a Cubist painting, while the bulk of it has the intense brightness and color of a van Gogh.

A fourth reader goes so far as to say that the book is about place, rhythm, flavors and smells, colors and highlights.  Antony, the narrator and protagonist, is, she says, only the boat that carries you downstream past all the scenery as the river ebbs, flows, surges, and pools.  The New York scenes, she says, are gray and angular, stop and go, while the landscape of Jersey County is green and round, and flows.

I think all of these readers are onto something, and frankly I’m pleased and relieved and flattered that they responded to the story as to something visual.  As a teacher of writing, my mantra was ‘show, not tell,’ which I’ll be the first to admit is hard to do.

 

How do you write visually?  How do you describe, for instance, a character?  One common technique is to describe the character the second she comes into play: Deirdre was short and plump, and wore her hair in a rat’s nest of tangled curls that all but hid her low forehead and beetling eyebrows that shaded her restless and beady eyes.  Her nose, long and thin, seemed to be made for prying into corners.  The smallness of the mouth was accentuated by the way she held her lips pressed tightly together, as though she had just taken a bite of something forbidden that she would chew and swallow later, when nobody was around to see.

For me, this sort of thing gives the reader too much too soon, and breaks up the flow of the narrative as well.  I recently got around to reading what is supposed to be a masterpiece of 20th century American prose in which every character, and there are legions of them, is introduced by half a page of stuff like this.  Some of the descriptions are quite clever, but after the first dozen or so, my eyes began to glaze over.  There was so much description that I wasn’t able to see anything.

Compare the following, from the first page of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: “Each morning they came around, three brisk and serious men with efficient mouths and inefficient eyes, accompanied by brisk and serious Nurse Duckett, one of the ward nurses who didn’t like Yossarian.”  Four characters and a tilly in thirty-two words: a snapshot, but a perfectly-chosen one.  Are the doctors tall or short?  Is Nurse Duckett fair or dark?  Those are details for the reader to fill in.  The author’s job is to show us the essence.  Yossarian, the main character, is hardly described at all.  But we will watch him walk and talk and act, and in our mind’s eye will be able to see him perfectly.  Already we know that at least two ward nurses do not like him, which is a great place to start.

Laurence Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, flat out refuses to tell us anything at all about the Widow Wadman, object of Uncle Toby’s amours.  He tells the reader to write it out himself, and leaves a blank page for the reader to do it in.

In Deutschstunde (The German Lesson), by Siegfried Lenz, most of what the narrator shows us is from his childhood.  What’s eye-level to a small child?  People’s butts.  Consequently, the size and shape of a butt is often our introduction to a character, and you might be surprised at how much you can reveal about who someone is by starting at the bottom.

 

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