born June 21, 1912
I’m one of these people who likes to pick apart the show-don’t-tell advice given to writers. Here’s an opinion to consider. The bottom line might be, it’s not whether you tell but when and how you tell…
…When is telling more appropriate? Again, if you have information that absolutely must be conveyed, then telling is the way to go. It’s short and dirty and sometimes? It works. Further, you shouldn’t be afraid to have characters (through dialogue or, at times, through first-person POV) “tell” things. Explanation through a character’s voice and perspective still can carry with it the earmarks of showing — because just as it’s true that you as the author have choices in how you share information, so too do all the characters in your story. Characters speaking in their own voice are, in a way, showing.
And that’s maybe a lesson for the author, too — your voice in all this matters, and a strong and artful voice can make telling seem like showing even when it’s not…
ALAN GARNER’S FIRST EFFORT AT OPENINGS LINES FOR THE WEIRDSTONE OF BRISINGAMEN:
Colin and Susan Whisterfield, ten-year-old twins, sat in the attic window and looked gloomily out over the dismal London roof-tops, watching the rain slide steadily and stickily past the window, as it had done for over a week. It was the most boring rain imaginable; there was no wind to fling it against the windows and make you feel extra safe and cosy by the fire as the drops rattle angrily against the glass; there were no huge black cloud mountains to eat up the daylight and make you feel just a little uneasy, even though you are safely tucked away in the middle of the largest city in the world. The rain just fell slowly out of a dull, grey sky into dull grey streets.
HOW THE BOOK ACTUALLY OPENS:
The guard knocked on the door of the compartment as he went past. “Winslow, fifteen minutes!”
“Thank you!” shouted Colin.
Susan began to clear away the debris of the journey – apple cores, orange peel, food wrappings, magazines, while Colin pulled down their luggage from the rack. And within three minutes they were both poised on the edge of their seats, case in hand and mackintosh over one arm, like every traveller before or since, in that limbo of journey’s end, when there is nothing to do and no time to relax. Those last miles were the longest of all.
Garner shared his first draft in a book of essays called The Voice that Thunders, as a bad example of deliberately writing down to children. (No offense intended to Harry Potter fans, but it sounds like J.K. Rowling to me.) In the actual opening we can also admire the direct move into meaningful action and the understated, powerful lyricism.
If you’re a writer, that’s what you are. And if the borderline is, are you published, that’s why vanity press has succeeded all these years, because people fell into that trap. Being a writer doesn’t mean you’re published, it doesn’t mean you’re any good at it. You certainly know of unmitigated slop that sells year after year, right?
What I’m saying is, it’s not a fight, with two guys going inside some ropes and one guy gets his hand raised at the end, it’s not that. You never get to meet the enemy. People have gotten published because they’re sleeping with this person, or they know this person or their cousin knows this person, and blah blah blah blah blah. I wrote my first book at least a dozen years before I got published.
No one has the right to define what you do except you."
— Andrew Vachss