marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

Tell, Don't Show

"Show don't tell" is one of those rules you hear early in the writing life.  And it has its points.  It's a very odd story that can be told well without any showing, and a scene shown is almost always more dramatic than a scene told.

Still, there are places.

Like the opening of Persuasion.
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:

"Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester, by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, November 5, 1789; Mary, born November 20, 1791."

Precisely such had the paragraph originally stood from the printer's hands; but Sir Walter had improved it by adding, for the information of himself and his family, these words, after the date of Mary's birth--"Married, December 16, 1810, Charles, son and heir of Charles Musgrove, Esq. of Uppercross, in the county of Somerset," and by inserting most accurately the day of the month on which he had lost his wife.
She does much the same with Northanger Abbey, there leavening the description of Catherine's family with sharp-edged ironies about how Catherine would have realized she wasn't the heroine of a Gothic novel if only she had compared her actual situation to those given in books.  And Norman Juster opens The Phantom Tollbooth the same way:  "There once was a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself - not just sometimes, but always."

Though the first thing I note in all of these is that the information given could only appear in scenes if you had scads of them, because otherwise it would not be certain that this was habitual behavior.  On the most part, we take characters as they appear, and generalize their behavior from one scene to all times, but to make it clear, summary does a nice job of it.

Though it's not the only elegant use of it I've seen.  Poul Anderson was a master of it.  In Satan's World, and in "The Man Who Counts", he had to explain the island of stability, and the poisonous-to-humans nature of a world's carbon-based lifeforms, and in both books, he gave characters a reason to be thinking about the matter and segued, imperceptibly, into paragraphs by the narrator accomplishing the info-dump.  Not at the beginning, obviously, perhaps it would have been impossible there, but not too far in.  Then, he had managed to build some curiosity about it, always wise when shifting into info-dumping.

Though I note from all successful examples I've stumbled that voice is more important here than in most places, since they give up the forward drive of the story.  Anderson used a perfectly transparent and flawless prose, which helped shift into the info-dump and out again.  Austen and Juster both used voices that flowed easily and readily and sounded interesting in and of themselves, which is probably better than a transparent style in the opening, where you don't have a build-up of curiosity to satisfy.

Tags: beginnings, characterization, exposition, narrative drive, narrative voice, style, transition, writing technique

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