Anyone who has ever taken Writing 101, or read anything about being a writer knows the classic: show, don’t tell. We sit there and try to think of clever devices to get our stories moving and to give description without relying too heavily of adjectives. We’re not supposed to say the wagon was red: we’re supposed to intimate that the well worn wagon carried with it the dusky hue of bruised tomatoes. (obviously something better than that- you all know that description is the bane of my writing existence).
So as a veteran of Two (yes TWO) writing classes, I now open up a book to see how the author has chosen to show not tell. And sometimes I find brilliant ways of conveying information: many times I do not. Right about now, my friend K is reading this and thinking “OMG- she’s back on the show don’t tell. Didn’t she bore us enough at dinner with this conversation? I can’t believe she’s still complaining about that book…)
I recently read a book- “The Atomic City Girls”. It contains the now common triptych story pattern- one day people will be studying the literature pattern of the 2010’s and they will ponder why this decade chose to divide books into three parts, telling three not really related stories, but miraculously have a last chapter that “unites” the three separate but equal parts. They will wonder why authors chose to do a lousy job telling three stories when they probably could have done a lousy job with just one storyline, and then we could just say poor writing instead of confusing and convoluted. Is anyone wondering why I don’t review books?
I read this book for my book club, where yes, we do actually discuss what we read. Our leader has a carefully thought out list of questions to stimulate conversation. I had a rather loud conversation with the others about this book regarding show don’t tell. I don’t think there are any major spoilers as the book itself does a great job of spoiling enjoyment of reading.
One of the convoluted storylines is about a low level employee who falls in love with a scientist, so there is the obvious he’s highly educated and has money while she is poorly educated and grew up sewing her own clothes. How do I know they fell in love? Well, right there on page 103 (fictitious- I have no idea what page it’s on) he said “I love you.” The preceding 102 pages did absolutely nothing to “show” that he loved her. He talks down to her, shuts her out and doesn’t treat her well. So the only showing the author did was to show that he was not only not a nice person, the author showed that he didn’t love her.
I brought this point up to my book club as they were oohing and aahing about how much in love the characters were. Where are you getting that he loves her? I asked. He says it. they fawn. The character says at the end of the book “She was the love of my life.”
She was the love of my life. Isn’t that telling? Where is the showing? Where was the support of the statement?
For the moment, let’s say that my novel is a love story. (I’m trying to keep the suspense up so when you all read it you can figure out if indeed character a loved character b, and how good a job I did showing it) Assume I spend my writing time trying to devise ways to show that my characters are in love. My question is: why am I bothering if no one really cares how well the story is told? Is writing as well I can the point, or is the point to try to get published?
So here is my question: Do readers want to see the journey through courtship, see how the characters interact and fall in love? Or do the words “He loved her” suffice?
Do we as readers really want to be shown, not told?