Perhaps the most overused and over worked dictum in fiction writing is that the writer should always show and not tell. That is a large load of bull puckey. See Dick, see Jane. See Dick hit Jane. Jane is crying. All action and no meaning. See the veins bulge on Dick’s neck, see his face become very red, see Jane turn as white as a sheet, see Dick strike out in anger. Ah, what made Dick angry? Oh, that would be telling. Maybe Jane burnt the toast and made crappy coffee for Dick’s breakfast. So what should he be so angry? Maybe he had a sleepless night. Ok, see Dick not fall asleep, see ?dick toss and turn, see Dick get up after having little sleep. People, this is all action. Now what do we understand about Dick? Damn little. Could it be something in his childhood? Maybe it was the Army life he had to live as a draftee. We don’t have a clue. All action and no thought makes Dick a very stupid boy.
So someone pointed out that if the writer uses the first person he can use more description. People, description is for flowers and birds and sun shining on the sea. We describe our surroundings, we describe other people, we even describe what we are wearing. Yes, we may describe how we feel. This new dress with the low plunging neckline makes me feel sexy and confident. So we also describe a few feelings. But why does that plunging neckline make me feel sexy and confident? What is the basis for such feelings? If I wore a sexy dress did daddy approve of me and tell me so? Wow, daughter, you look like a man killer. You’re going to knock them dead. You’ll have the boys begging to dance with you and be their girlfriend. But if all I did was put on that dress you wouldn’t have any idea of why I am wearing or how it makes me feel.
I feel happy is a description of a state of feeling or emotion. But it doesn’t tell you why I feel happy or how that feeling affects my present well being. It doesn’t describe motive or reason for being. Your job as a writer is to help the reader make sense of the world you have created. The reader is not a mind reader. Why did Dick hit Jane? Because he was mad at her. Why was he mad at her? Do you see where this is going? Why do you love me? I don’t know, I am just showing and not telling. A great basis for any marriage. Now that does not mean that you must reveal everything in great detail. Your reader must do some of his own work. He must use his own intelligence and pick up the clues you have dropped for his benefit. Ah, yes, it is a game, in many ways.
Exposition is that description or telling that provides the clues to the mystery of what the character is doing what he does. I love James Hilton, his Lost Horizon is a masterpiece of exposition. Yes, there is plenty of action when needed to move the plot along. And his descriptions are both detailed and panoramic in depicting the settings, the objects, and the people. But one cannot begin to fathom the idea of the book without some reference to a smattering of philosophy, of art, of music, and a few other intellectual ideas. Not that Hilton engages in an attempt to preach to us the particular brands of philosophical leanings he prefers. But he does give you, the reader just enough to understand the inner conflicts and the possible future actions as well as the contexts for such actions. This is not the bumbling who-done-it forcing his way through the case until he unmasks the murderer. This is the ability to make you believe that such a place as Shangri La could exist and why it does exist and how you would want to live there. Action doesn’t cut it. You can’t depict all that through the use of action. It doesn’t matter if you are writing in the first person or third. It can’t be done.
I like Eric Ambler when it comes to the action and mystery novels. Judgment on Deitchev is told in the first person but there is enough third person telling and it is a necessary condition to understand why the book was written. One must detail actions that the main character in the first person cannot have observed. One must let that third person observer come into play so that the plot makes sense. Does it matter who the third person actually is? No, of course not. His only due is to help you, the reader, make sense of the plot, help explain the story. Remember, it is how you tell the story. Remember the old joke about a man who walks into a hotel and there is a convention of joke tellers. So he walks into the ballroom where people are either sitting or standing while sn individual stands on the dias. He finds a spot against the wall and begins to observe the people about him. Then he hears the person on the dias yell out “Number fortyseven.” And he hears the laughter in the room. Another person takes the podium and begins by saying, “Number nineteen.” into the microphone. Again, there is laughter from the audience. The that same speaker says “twentyeight.” and the audience goes wild with laughter. Puzzled, he turns to one of the men standing next to him and asks what is going on. The man say, oh, we are telling jokes. The first man says,”yes, but what is it with the numbers?” The second man explains that in order to save time everyone has memorized the jokes by their respective number. The first man then asks,”Can I give it a try?” The second man says, “Sure, go on up.” So the first man goes up to the dais and when it is his turn he steps up to the podium and says” Number nineteen.” There is a silence. The he says, Number twenty eight.” and the people start to boo him. So he goes back to the man he was talking with and asks, “What did I do wrong?” The Man says with a very straight face, “Perhaps it’s the way you tell a joke.”
So now we start to understand it is a matter of how we tell a story. If something happens at work and we are relating our story to our coworkers, then there is a lot of common understanding about both the people and the situations involved. On the other hand, when we go home and tell our loved ones about todays adventure at work we have to tell it differently because they do not share much of the same information as our coworkers. And if we are to tell that same story to our neighbor, it again gets a different approach to the telling. Who the audience is will determine how you tell that story. Another favorite author of mind is Graham Greene. The Quiet American is told through the eyes of the British news reporter in Saigon. It is a third person telling and yet, our ace reporter does not see everything nor hear everything. Greene needs to explain a few things through that mysterious third person or through the quite Quite American himself. I am giving you authors to read and learn from, men who have far more success and literary merit than most of the modern writers recommended by the New York Times. Exposition is an important function of writing that has been pushed into the background by hacks who believe that formulaic writing is the wave of the future. If you really want to be a great writer, forget all that creative writing classes and bullshit and do the obvious. Observe people and events and read the best of literature. Read those authors who have made a significant difference in the craft, not the fly by night idiots. Don’t read popular fiction. It is popular for a reason, it is easy to read and doesn’t demand that you know anything nor comprehend anything. Avoid best seller lists like the plague.
More to come as I cover other authors. The fact is, there are a great number of authors out there that you need to read. As you read you should become aware of how the author has put together the story. Unlike those readers who do not write, you, by virtue of trying to create short stories or novels, even non fiction articles, you can recognize so much better how the author does what he does. I find it makes reading much more enjoyable. Reflect on the word choices, the verb tenses, the syntax used. Make notes, if you like, and keep those notes in a binder. Writing, particularly fiction, is both a craft and an art. Many of us get on with the craft part very well. It’s the art part that makes us stumble.