Monthly Archives: June 2017

When Readers See Behind the Curtain


“Show, don’t tell” is such ubiquitous advice, repeated so often so often in conference halls, writing guidebooks and classrooms, that I’d imagine most creative writing teachers would save themselves a lot of time by owning the phrase emblazoned on a stamp (don’t bother Googling; I’ve already checked and no such object exists). There’s even a short story published in the New Yorker titled “Show Don’t Tell.” But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to tell. In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell cautions not to take the advice too literally, writing that “Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” I’d imagine the idea’s been around as long as we’ve been on Earth telling stories, though the phrasing is often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass

The idea is that one allows the reader to see, hear, taste, smell, feel and experience a scene in a more immersive way than getting hit with an info dump. That draws attention away from the fact that it’s a work of fiction and makes the story come to life, and there’s the key: telling is okay only insofar as it doesn’t break the illusion. I want to examine two authors telling and not showing in interesting ways. One writer pulls it off. For the other, I believe, the tactic backfires.

Telling as a Plot Device

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica may just be the best-researched novel ever written. Every page drips with details large and small, insider lingo and scientific accuracy (too much for some reviewers). Clearly he knows his subject matter. In fact, Robinson traveled to Antarctica as part of the NSF’s Artists and Writers Program, which, yes, is a real thing. In his story, shortly after landing at McMurdo research station in Antarcitca, one of his characters gets a call from his boss, who wants to know what it’s like down there. “Just tell me what you see, Wade,” he says. “You’re my eyes.” Wade responds:

Well, I’m walking by the Crary Lab now. It’s quite small, composed of three small buildings on a slope, with a passageway connecting them. There’s a street sign saying I’m on Beeker Street, but it’s not much of a street. There are a lot of pipelines right on the ground… Now I’m passing a building like a giant yellow cube, with a bunch of antennas on the roof. Must be the radio building. Now I’m passing a little chapel… Now I’m on a road going out to the docks. Right now the docks are empty, because the bay is iced over.

Oh, you clever writer person you! I bet there’s a little sticky note saying “show, don’t tell” on the corner of his laptop screen. He found a way to sneak an infodump into his story… but, come on. It’s still an infodump. For me, this passage exposed the wiring and gears behind the metaphorical curtain. The phone call is such an obviously convenient literary device that it draws attention to the fact that we’re reading a work of fiction and in doing so breaks the immersion, like seeing a cameraman’s reflection in a movie.

Telling to Advance the Plot

Raymond Chandler had a similar dilemma in his gritty noir novel Farewell, My Lovely, but he tackles it much more skillfully. His detective, Philip Marlowe, has just been jumped by assailants. He doesn’t see them coming. They smack him on the back of the head and he’s out. A little later, he regains consciousness. Here’s how chapter ten opens (edited lightly for space):

“Four minutes,” the voice said. “Five, possibly six. They must have moved quick and quiet. He didn’t even let out a yell.”

I opened my eyes and looked fuzzily at a cold star. I was lying on my back. I felt sick.

“Then one of them got into the car,” the voice said, “and waited for you to come back. The others hid again. They must have figured he would be afraid to come alone. Or something in his voice made them suspicious when they talked on the phone.”

I balanced myself woozily on the flat of my hands, listening.

“Yeah, that was about how it was,” the voice said.

It was my voice. I was talking to myself, coming out of it. I was trying to figure the thing out subconsciously.

“Shut up, you dimwit,” I said, and stopped talking to myself.

Now that is an inventive literary device. Both writers break the same rule for the same purpose, but Chandler finds a way to keep the immersion intact. He remains faithful to the spirit of “show, don’t tell.” Robinson’s clunky approach strikes me as nothing more than a plot device, whereas Chandler’s deft handling works to advance the story even during a lull in the action.

Is a Novel an Art or a Craft? A Literary Agent Offers a Unique Perspective


I know this debate seems pointless at the outset, but… Well, but nothing. That’s how it seems. “But wait,” you ask, “can’t a novel be both?” Well, not according to this totally unqualified person who doesn’t cite sources:

[Arts and crafts] are two forms of creativity that are commonly juxtaposed by [people who] don’t see any difference in them. But the fact is that art is different from the craft in a sense that art is a creative merit that comes from within whereas craft is skilled work.

(Side note: when you don’t have any on-the-surface expertise on an issue, you should probably cite sources if you want to be taken seriously.) Writing for The New York Times, art critic Margo Jefferson divides the issue a different way, between “art made to be used (crafts and design), and art made to be contemplated (painting, drawing and sculpture).”  The Swedes, I’m told, solve the issue by simply having a single word encompassing both the design of an object and the useful object in and of itself: Konsthantverk. (I love that when Chrome translates the Wikipedia page, the various types of crafts are labeled “species”). One can make an academic career out of splitting hairs over the definition of art, but I usually cede authority on the matter to Tolstoy, who famously defined art as the communication of feelings.

Yes, I took that into Photoshop and changed the comma to a semicolon. I am an OCD-riddled English teacher. Leave me alone.

A novel (a good one, at least) certainly communicates emotions from page to reader. So it’s settled then. Right? Well, not according to many successful novelists, editors and agents. In an interview featuring the world’s least-skilled cameraman, John Irving comes down firmly on the craft side, going as far as to say he doesn’t consider himself an artist at all:

I’ve heard him take the point further, in a quote I absolutely cannot find right now, in which he says he is “not even a storyteller.” I first heard Irving say that several years ago, and it ha influenced my philosophy towards writing. I made a similar point when I was interviewed by a local newspaper after the publication of my debut novel (yay shameless self promotion). So my attention was piqued when I saw literary agent Donald Maass make the following statement in his phenomenal writing guidebook Writing the Breakout Novel:

[This] is a book for dedicated craftspeople: The kind of folk whose work is so fine and apparently effortless that onlookers call it art.

Well that’s an interesting take on the issue. Writing is a craft, Maass tells us, but very good writers will have their handiwork appreciated as though it were an object of high art – something to be contemplated, a wellspring of emotion. But that’s only on the surface. Peek behind the curtain and you’ll see a mess of gears and wires, support beams that hold the structure intact, the machinery needed for a reader to suspend disbelief. Now, am I reading way too much into that quote? Probably. But it’s a neat way to acknowledge that writing is a craft, but that it can still communicate emotions. You just have to find a way to hide the wires and gears from the reader.