On Writing

Showing vs. Telling Part Two

Yesterday I talked about how to get just the right amount of “cowbell” in your story: no more than 10 or 20 percent should be exposition or “telling.” I also broke down three different types of writing: exposition, narrative summary, and scene. Now let’s look at some examples to see how writers, from novelists to songwriters, have handled this mix.

First up, chapter one of Pride and Prejudice. It opens with one of the most famous (and famously abstract) opening passages in literature:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Why does this work? The mordant social satire, of course. Even the fact that the first sentence is the kind of universal claim your high school English teacher told you to avoid is itself part of the joke. If you can make your abstract statements that sharp, you can get away with a lot. (And here I’m going to wager that most of the lines that get highlighted in books are LARGE STATEMENTS ABOUT LIFE, even those that aren’t satirical like this one.)

Pic of Mr and Mrs Bennet (Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn)
“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends.”

Most important, that abstract opening is brief and quickly moves on to one of the most hilarious exchanges of dialogue anywhere. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Bennet’s thoughts or feelings intrude, and neither do the omniscient narrator’s; the scene is all dialogue, and it reveals much about both characters while provoking nods and smiles, if not guffaws.

The scene concludes with an abstract description of the characters that sums up what we’ve already seen (and previews the roles Mr. and Mrs. Bennet will play in the complications that follow):

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

A modern editor would probably cut that last paragraph, but in Jane Austen’s day (and for a century after), this passage represented a paragon of economy.

Let’s break that chapter down by the numbers. The whole thing is 853 words, and the abstract bits at the beginning and end count for 148 words. That’s about 17%, or right in the ballpark we’re aiming for.

Da Vinci Code book coverIt’s tempting to say that exposition plays a larger role in classic novels of the past or in “literary” novels (think Moby Dick — wasn’t it something like fifty percent exposition on the natural history of whales?). But going back to Dan Brown, who I mentioned yesterday, a lot of The Da Vinci Code consists of Robert Langdon explaining things to other people:

“Sophie,” Langdon said, “the Priory’s tradition of perpetuating goddess worship is based on a belief that powerful men in the early Christian church ‘conned’ the world by propagating lies that devalued the female and tipped the scales in favor of the masculine.” Sophie remained silent, staring at the words. “The Priory believes that Constantine and his male successors successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity by waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine, obliterating the goddess from modern religion forever.”

Dialogue like that will get you thrown out of a lot of creative writing classes. Maybe, as in Game of Thrones, a couple of naked pagan priestesses would have helped in passages like this, but probably not. Still, The Da Vinci Code is one of the bestselling novels of all time, so go figure. I remember enjoying it at the time, but then again I have a large interest in blasphemy, which kept me going despite wanting to throw the book across the room at least once per chapter.

A Gentleman Undone book cover
Don’t judge a book by the abs on the cover…unless you’re into that sort of thing

For a better example of the uses of exposition in narrative, let’s turn to Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. The best romances have characters who are interested in something beyond each other and who exhibit qualities beyond the typically attractive ones. In this case, the heroine, Lydia, is a Regency-era courtesan whose defining trait is a prodigal facility with math combined with a photographic memory. But this trait isn’t just slapped on in an attempt to make her impressive to the reader; it’s deeply woven into her character and her motivations. She prides herself on these abilities and hopes to use them, through gambling, to free herself from the gentlemen on whom she relies for “protection” and a livelihood.

Having given her heroine such a character-defining trait, Grant’s task is to show us that skill, and not just tell us “Lydia was great at math.” And the only way to do this is to delve into the math, which can easily get abstract.

In an early scene, we see Lydia looking out a window while pondering what the future holds for her, dependent as she is on the whims of her current protector. He might change gambling clubs to one that won’t allow women to play, or worse, he might discard her for another courtesan. But then Lydia rejects all this pondering as “airy speculation, no place to get a good reckoning grip”:

She reached out a forefinger to trace the narrow strip of lead that separated one diamond-shaped glass pane from another. Divide each diamond with a meridian and an equator, and you could reassemble the pieces into rectangles to arrive at the window’s dimension. This one, with six courses of four diamonds and five courses of three, had an area forty-eight times as great as the area of a single pane.

[Her brother] had used to quiz her on these matters, in the years before he’d finally persuaded Father to engage a tutor. To this day she couldn’t stand before such a window without feeling her brother’s presence behind her right shoulder, his giddy expectant pride as she ran through the calculations even faster than he could do.

Grant has taken what could be a hackneyed scene (don’t characters always stare out windows while pondering the future?) and made it concrete and specific to this character. The expository bit is challenging for math-impaired readers like myself, but it works for me because it serves the character. I feel how Lydia prefers logic and facts to emotion and speculation. And I get a real, concrete understanding of her genius with numbers and the pride she takes in it, even if I don’t understand everything in the passage.

The passage also works because that abstract bit is brief, and quickly shifts into a memory. Here we’re into narrative summary, rather than a single, specific event shown in a fully developed scene. We see Lydia’s own pride reflected in her brother’s pride for her, and we also learn how important her brother was to her (he and the rest of her family are dead, of course, or she wouldn’t have become a courtesan). There’s a bit of telling here (his giddy expectant pride) but there’s also a sense of action in her running quickly through the calculations, and the whole sentence creates a vivid picture of their relationship.

In another early scene, we see Lydia practicing with cards:

Now then. Twelve players at the table, two decks in play, cards newly shuffled. Two cards to every player, face down. Player number five would turn up an immediate twenty-one, good for him but bad for the composition of the remaining deck. First player would buy two more cards, which meant he must hold at least three low ones. Second player would go bust. Six, six, and queen, let us say. Giving the deck a high-cards-to-low-cards ratio of approximately twenty-three to twenty-one, or one and ninety-five thousandths.

Methodically Lydia laid out the cards, tabulating as she went. Edward wouldn’t wake for hours yet. She’d have time to count her way through both decks, and then to play a few hands, watching for those places where she could take advantage of her tally to wager boldly.

And night by night, through means fair or otherwise, with the help of Lieutenant Coxcomb and other men who made the mistake of estimating her lightly, she would tuck bills into her corset, and hide them away at home, and draw ever closer to the day she could buy her independence.

Again Lydia’s skill is on display. The first paragraph risks losing the reader in a fog of numbers, but how else to show a character’s ability with math? Grant wisely combines the abstractions with actions like turning up cards and going bust. The next paragraph moves into more tangible actions. And then, vitally, the last paragraph gives a vivid image of the ways Lydia hopes to use her talents to escape her lot in life. The expository bits work because they’re closely bound to Lydia’s central motivation.

So that’s how exposition can work in both classic and popular novels. When you need it, you need to be able to write it well. Keep it short, make it as active and concrete as possible, and tie it closely to your characters’ needs and desires. And don’t let your characters yammer on like Robert Langdon, unless they’re talking about hot-button issues like Jesus’ secret bloodline.

The other type of writing that’s not quite as specific and “showy” as a scene is narrative summary. This has all sorts of uses, from filling in gaps between two scenes to giving your characters’ backstory. In the latter case, it’s not quite a flashback, which would have all the specificity and detail of a fully developed scene. Narrative summary moves through time much more quickly than a scene, tending to describe what happens through images and through archetypal activities that paint a character or a relationship (as we just saw with Lydia and her brother).

Jodi Picoult uses narrative summary and exposition to good effect in the opening pages of Nineteen Minutes. The first few paragraphs provide examples of activities you can accomplish in the length of time indicated in the title.

In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five.

Nineteen Minutes book coverIs this narrative summary or exposition? It actually shows how the different types of writing can blend together, because it’s exploring an abstraction (a length of time) through concrete activities. The examples are so recognizable that they don’t need more detail, and they do a lot to establish the setting as a small town where everyday people go about their everyday chores and pastimes.

The final two sentences move into the abstract:

In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world, or you can just jump off it.

In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge.

Those are still actions, but they’re metaphorical and/or abstract; they set the topic and theme of the novel, which revolves around a school shooting.

After that opening quarter-page, Picoult shifts to a scene showing a mother and daughter getting ready for work and school. (Importantly, as you look at the first page, your eye can skip the abstract opening bit to this concrete, specific scene; an entire first page of abstraction might cause the bookstore browser to put the book down.) It’s the typical domestic scene the first few paragraphs led us to expect, except that this relationship, shown through concrete actions and dialogue, seems remarkably tense.

Once she’s established the relationship between these characters, Picoult doesn’t mind doing a bit of telling on the second page:

Alex herself didn’t have any other vices. She didn’t have time for any vices. She would have liked to say that she knew with authority that Josie didn’t have any vices, either, but she would only be making the same inference the rest of the world did when they met Josie: a pretty, popular, straight-A student who knew better than most the consequences of falling off the straight-and-narrow.

Why does Picoult choose to tell, rather than show, here? Because this is all about the contrast between the person the world sees on the surface and the truth underneath, and especially the ways parents fail to understand or truly know their teenage children. Later, when we get Josie’s perspective, we’ll learn that she perceives herself as falling far from this image of perfection while feeling the strain of maintaining it. In this case, using an abstract, “telling” description is on point. And using those “knowing” verbs (she knew, making the same inference) is a way of highlighting the perception, and implying there might be a different reality.

In the next paragraph, Picoult provides a bit of backstory to this tense mother-daughter relationship, through narrative summary:

Josie had once been so proud to have a mother as a judge. Alex could remember Josie broadcasting her career to the tellers at the bank, the baggers in the grocery store, the flight attendants on planes. She’d ask Alex about her cases and her decisions. That had all changed three years ago, when Josie entered high school, and the tunnel of communication between them slowly bricked shut.

Later, Picoult will use flashback chapters to explore in detail the changes in her characters’ relationships, but right now she just wants to give a quick but vital overview of the ways Alex and Josie’s relationship has evolved. Like a lot of narrative summary, the verbs are “had” and “could/would,” representing both the time shift to the past (Josie had once been) and the fact that these actions happened over and over again (She’d ask Alex). Then Picoult comes up with a concrete, active image that represents the narrowing of Josie and Alex’s relationship over time.

This passage shows how effective narrative summary can be when used well. It’s not specific, like a scene; Picoult doesn’t show us the specific dialogue, but just tells us that Josie would broadcast her mother’s career to strangers or ask about her work. Yet it’s not pure telling either, which might be something like “Josie had once shown an interest in her work.” The passage is active enough to paint a concrete picture over time. Most important, it encapsulates how the relationship changed over those years in just four vivid sentences.

Picoult is also unafraid of using one of those filter words Palahniuk warned against. Instead of “Alex could remember…” why not simply “Josie would broadcast her career…”? Quicker and more active, right? I don’t know what Picoult had in mind here, but one problem with removing all of those filter verbs is that the reader can lose track of who the POV character is. That can quickly become a problem in a novel that shifts between POV characters as frequently as this one does. It can also be a problem in romance novels, where chapters tend to alternate between the hero’s and heroine’s points of view. Judicious use of filter verbs like “Alex remembered,” “Josie knew,” or “Patrick could hear” help to anchor the reader in the consciousness of the POV character. (But remember, the key word here is judicious.)

Finally, to shift genres completely, let’s look at how this mix can work in songwriting. Lyrics are different than stories and novels, of course, but the advantage is that you can talk about an entire work in a short space. Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” is a great example of how to mix concrete images (which work something like a scene in a story), narrative summary, and just a bit of abstract exposition. Take a listen while you read the rest.

The chorus is narrative summary, describing the type of thing the narrator and his girlfriend would always do during their first golden days together:

We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride

But the verses become much more specific, with concrete details and actions:

Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday
I got a union card and a wedding coat

We even learn the name of the outfit where the narrator gets a job: the Johnstown Company.

In writing workshop, we used to talk about “earned emotion” versus sentiment: Sentimental writing happens whenever the writer asks the reader to feel an emotion that hasn’t been shown on the page (“Joe felt sad”). But if you’ve shown the details that make Joe feel sad, then you’ve earned the right to talk about that emotion a bit (though probably not anything as blatant as “Joe felt sad”).

It’s the same with exposition: if you’ve shown a situation with enough concrete detail, action, and dialogue, you’ve earned the right to a little comment on it. Whether you do is a matter of taste, and can often be omitted, but it’s also often where the theme of a work arises.

In “The River,” Springsteen allows himself just one line of abstract speculation in the final verse:

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse?

For me, that’s the line that nails the song, the cherry on the cake. But it absolutely wouldn’t work without all those images that came before it, the ones that hit you like a punch to the gut.

So when you’re writing, remember to show more than you tell; but when you have to tell, tell it well.

Your thoughts?

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