Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Telling it well

The writing adage "show not tell" is a good one but there are sometimes you really do just need some telling in a novel.

The trick is to tell it well.

How to do that?  Heck if I know! But I do know it when I see it:

As the days turned to weeks, everyone in London learned to live with it [the air raids by the Germans in 1940]. They learned to live with the dread and the fear, the sleepless nights and their churning, sour stomachs.  They learned to get up and run to the flimsy corrugated-steel Anderson shelter in the dark without tripping and falling.  They learned to live with the glow from fires burning in the East End and to live with the smell--the stench of thick, black smoke and an underlying scent of things best not discussed.  Many people, more than 170,000 by some accounts learned to live underground in at least eighty different Tube stations, sleeping on the floor, cooking over small grills and using buckets for toilets.

They became used to seeing the endless processions of people dressed in black, coming to or from the constant funerals and memorial services.

They learned to read the morning papers without weeping.

Notice the details. Notice the evocation of all the senses.  Notice the rhythm of these three paragraphs.

And that final line is just brilliant.

This is a great example of how to tell rather than show.

If you're a writer, no matter where you are in your career, you probably keep a reader's journal of some sort where you write down the lines, paragraphs and maybe even whole pages of work that gets it right.  I keep a journal like that.  These three paragraphs are the most recent entry.

And if you want to read the book they're from, I found it in the first book in the series by Susan Elia Macneal Mr Churchill's Secretary.


V Brown said...

it's nice to see a good example of telling, since everyone is constantly pushing the showing side of things!

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is a great example. I don't keep a journal like this, although it would be a lot easier if I did. I like to pull books off the shelves, especially the ones that were my favorites, and there are passages I remember, and I'll re-read those for inspiration.

Colin Smith said...

This is an excellent example of "telling." I've read a number of craft books, most of which repeat the "show-don't-tell" refrain, and with good reason. However, Monica Wood's book DESCRIPTION was the first I came across to make a case for telling instead of showing. Certainly, she advocates "show-don't-tell" in the vast number of cases. But I was impressed that she actually came out and said, "You know, there are times when show-don't-tell doesn't work."

french sojourn said...

I think the biggest hurdle that I have imposed on myself and my first m/s, has been "Show don't tell"

Thank you for this insightful permission.

Now it should flow like wine..........yeah right.


Anonymous said...

That IS a great example and Susan's Maggie Hope series is brilliant!

Kim Van Sickler said...

I'm struck by the repetitive nature of the phrase, "They learned", followed by chilling details of things that most of us never experience but that those people became fluent in. It hits home with the subtlety of a bomb explosion. Powerfully good.

Janet Reid said...

"It hits home with the subtlety of a bomb explosion." GREAT line.

Pepper Smith said...

Sometimes there simply is no other way than to do some telling rather than showing.

Great series, by the way.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

In Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, toward the end is a set of descriptive passages about the attendees of a rally.

The line that always stuck with me was, "They were the sort of men who ate peas with their knives." (paraphrased from memory because I'm too lazy to go grab my copy and look it up.)

I have no clue what that means but it evokes such an image and they act of showing them loading peas onto their knives and cursing and chatter wouldn't have gotten it across one-tenth as well as that simple sentence.


Derrick said...

Thank you for this posting. I needed this bit of wisdom today.

Yes, I have read a lot of advice on how to write well. But there does come a point in one's story where it is ok to tell instead of show.

My book has a lot of tense scenes in it, so having moments with narrative prose actually helps future readers get a little break from the more intense scenes.

And I love your idea of jotting down examples from authors who get it right. I do highlight examples in novels I love from authors I love and it has helped me grow as a writer. Studying and researching is so crucial to developing craft. I have a long way to go, but this process is the most rewarding process for me.