Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Great writing

There is always a choice about what to include and what to leave to the reader. What to write and what to leave between the lines.
Somehow the really great writers put just enough on paper for the reader to leap from one stepping stone to the next, inventing the story in their mind as they go. It may be that every reader invents a slightly different story, but they all invent tales that they live in, love, and remember.
I think that's the real difference between telling and showing.
Tellng is all about downloading the details that are in the author's mind, like writing a technical manual describing the story. Showing, on the other hand is opening the door to imagination so that the story pours into the minds eye of the reader, it becomes their story and they remain grateful to the writer for opening a crack into a different universe.
If I have this right, then that's why it is so difficult to set out a technical description that really defines the difference. There are of course particular sentences, that can be seen as much more likely to fall into one camp than another, but on their own such examples become part of the great lexicon of telling, and only illustrate showing when they are accompanied by the right experience in the reader, and that doesn't happen when the sentence is written, only when it is read.
So some telling turns out to be showing, words, sentences, whole paragraphs that if isolated would seem to be telling, in it's most obvious form, can show a story if the whole thing works.
One example I am reading at the moment is Nicola Morgan's book ‘Wasted’.
I'm taking a huge risk here, she's a better blogger than me and has written a lot of books, gets asked to talk at conferences for writers etc. so it's hardly my place to critique. On the other hand I am a reader, so what the hell.
I find myself asking, as I read the book, 'Why does this work?' The style is very authorial, you'd cut the whole thing if you followed Elmore Leonard's advice and cut out anything that looks like writing. Of course some of that is just fashion, if we all took Elmore's advice no one would have read a word of Arthur Ransome and all his wonderful stories written in an omniscient third person that can even tell you what the dog is thinking.
Nicola's story is in that same point of view, allowing her to tell us, and I do mean tell, what is in the head of each character as she goes along. Not only that, but she frequently uses the authorial privilege of telling us what will be in their head, or what might be. Yet there is something about the story that makes me want to keep turning the pages, which means that something is right.  As Terry Pratchett says, there has to be a hidden message at the bottom of page one that says turn to page two, and a similar one on page two that gets you to three and so on. Those messages are obviously there, else why am I on page, um, well it's an ebook, so page numbers mean nothing, but I am well past half way.
Which in a roundabout way gets me back to where I started, the better writers know, or at least instinctively grasp, what to put on the page and what to put between the lines.
Showing, means enough words to lever open the space between the lines, to drive wedges into reality and open the cracks into the fictional space that lies beyond. Telling fills the page and covers the cracks like Polyfilla; smooth, sometimes even beautiful, but boring.
Suspense is one of those wedges, crucial to inducing the reader to use their imagination to explore what might be hidden deeper or later. Telling has no suspense. I used write papers in the civil service. Suspense is frowned on. You can't write a brief for a minister that says come back next week, or leaves anything to their imagination. Civil Service documents are all Polyfilla.
I think there is an issue too about how big those wedges need to be, and the answer is just big enough. Hammer a huge lever into the crack along with a JCB and an army of construction workers and we are back to a parallel universe that exists in the author's head rather than one that the reader is helped to discover. We are all storytellers but economy and sparsity is the key, just enough telling so that the story and the discovery of it becomes the main experience. Of course literary fiction is important too, it may not always have a narrative, but it does have ideas and images; it does do things to your mind and it still has those page turning messages.
But stick with the story for the moment because the story matters too, which is why the Stig Larson series works. The writing may be littered with Ikea shopping lists and stuff to fill 'what not to do' sessions on creative writing courses, but the story and at least one of the characters are so much bigger than the writing. The lesson from the popularity of Larson and probably Dan Brown and dare I say it the later J K Rowling books, is that if the story is big enough, the writing can break the ‘Rules’.
Rules, like show not tell, are no more than someone's attempt to codify best practice. Whether invented by an individual, or a group, and tested by time, or academic study, they are not tablets of stone and they are often oversimplifications. Who is going to remember a complicated rule?
Show don't tell is good, as rules go, and is probably easier to understand than saying that you should make the content that appears in the mind of the reader bigger, on any metric that you can devise, than the intellectual activity required to read the words. The reader will feel rewarded if they get back more than they put in.
Great writing reveals in the world or evokes in the reader something beyond their normal experience. Whether in fiction or fact, shown or told, the bargain every writer tries to strike is, if you make the effort to read my words, I'll make it worth your while.

PS My thanks to Nicola Morgan for a brief comment on an earlier draft.

1 comment:

  1. Sterling post, Rod. I like the metaphor about levering up the space between lines.

    They say once you are published, you are allowed to break the rules. I read the start of a novel by a prolific and established author, and was astonished at how dull and badly-written it was; on YWO I'd have given it 27/40 and a lot of advice. Many of its reviewers on Amazon said it was disappointing and not as good as her earlier books.

    It's still selling, though, rather well. Publishing is a strange business.