Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Writing Blasphemy!

I gasped and nearly spilled my coffee as I read the first chapter of Francine Prose's book called Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.

Prose advises writers not only to read good, well-written literature, but also to pay attention while reading, and to take note of why the writing is so effective. Chapter 1 deals with the power of individual word choices. She gives examples of opening paragraphs from writers like Flannery O'Connor that Prose found to be particularly strong, and right away I noticed a problem. If I wrote those same paragraphs and turned them in to a contest, the judges would rip through them. Every one of the judges would scream, "You're telling us, not showing us. Show, don't tell!"

That's when Prose did it. She spoke the words that are considered sheer blasphemy in the writing world: "Finally, the passage contradicts a form of bad advice often given young writers--namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell. Needless to say, many great novelists combine 'dramatic' showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out--don't tell us a character is happy, show us how she screams 'yay' and jumps up and down for joy--when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language. There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing."

A gleeful, guilty little thrill ran through me as I read the words. Finally, a "real" writer, a woman who's been publishing acclaimed novels since the seventies, was saying what I felt in my darkest, most rebellious moments.

In following the "show don't tell" rule, I sometimes have felt that my characters are turning into a collection of nervous twitches and quirky little movements. I've wondered how many times they can raise their eyebrows, widen their eyes, clap their hands to their mouths or rub their foreheads in one book.

I understand we need to put the emphasis on showing. A novel that is mostly telling would be boring beyond belief. But as Prose stresses about this and other aspects of writing, a good writer knows what works best for any given sentence or paragraph--and isn't afraid to do it, regardless of what those contest judges do to them!