When I talk to my husband, a guitar player, about writing, he often relates it to music to understand what I’m feeling (anguish, elation, misery, depending on the day) and what I’m trying to evoke from my readers (anguish, elation, misery, depending on the day). Today’s guest post comes from Mary Ellen Walsh, a writing buddy of mine and fellow Long Islander who underscores the importance of “showing not telling” in our writing with a little help from The Boss and The Piano Man.
As fiction writers, our job is to make our characters come alive believably on the page while unraveling a story. How do we actually do that? It’s really a mix of both the showing and the telling deftly blended together like a symphony that makes a novel sing.
Let’s use more music to illustrate that. Tell me which one you see better?
Come out Virginia don’t let me wait,
Catholic girls start much too late,
Sooner or later it comes down to fate.
I might as well be the one.
– “Only the Good Die Young,” Billy Joel
Bobby said he’d pull out, Bobby stayed in,
Janey had a baby wasn’t any sin,
They were set to marry on a summer day,
Bobby got scared and he ran away,
Jane moved in with ma out on Shawnee Lake
She sighed, Ma sometimes my whole life feels like one big mistake.
– “Spare Parts,” Bruce Springsteen
With all due respect to Billy Joel’s incredible song-writing prowess, truly you are pulled into the song with Bruce – you feel Janney’s angst that “his” fleeing caused her. We “see” Janey lamenting to her mother. We even have a setting near a Lake.
Only the Good Die Young is telling, or really begging, with a very wide lens and objective eye that gives a preachy distance underscoring the distance between Virginia and Joel – the whole point of the song, yes, but the listener feels the distance as well.
Another example: What do you see better?
1. Jeffrey was angry.
2. Jeffrey slammed the door, threw his coat on the floor and yelled, “Kimmie!”
Which one brings your character to life more vividly? Which makes you want to read more?
Version 2. By a mile.
Back in 2008, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Henkin author of Matrimony (Pantheon 2007), a novel just as much about a writer developing his craft as marriage. We talked about needing both techniques in a novel and how to use them to tell a story. Henkin cleverly pits two would-be writers—main character Julian and his friend Carter—as one rich and one not so wealthy, and these two characters spend time together in professor Chesterfield classroom and become friends. Here’s an excerpt of their first day as creative writing students.
Chesterfield wrote on the board: THOU SHALT NOT UTTER THE PHRASE “SHOW, DON’T TELL” WHEN DISCUSSING ONE ANOTHER’S SHORT STORIES.
“Because it’s a lie.” Professor Chesterfield was sitting on his desk his legs swinging back and forth, and between his left thumb and forefinger he held a cigarette….”
“…Where would Proust be if he were not allowed to tell anything?”
Henkin and I discussed how basically telling becomes like a giant rationalization whereas showing allows the reader to be a witness, rather than listener.
“…My mother’s pretentious,” he said. “She majored in French in college, but that’s no excuse. Do you know what she called the stroller she used to wheel me in? A poussette.” He guided Carter into the guest bathroom, were the faucets said “c” for chaud and “f” for froid. He was the only child in America, he liked to say, who grew up thinking “c” stood for “hot.”
Here, we see the actual French affects all throughout Julian’s home.
Showing not telling is true in life as well isn’t it? Didn’t we cringe when our parents told us what to do? But we thrived while watching them show us, leading by example. We learned better, didn’t we, when we saw it?
I usually do.
Mary Ellen Walsh is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Daily News, Newsday, Newsday’s Wellness magazine and elsewhere. Mary Ellen pens a wildly popular column, MEWsings, on AOL’s Patch.com. She also plays guitar and is a singer/songwriter who frequents open mike nights with her 12-year-old guitarist son Robert. Mary Ellen is currently working on her first novel, Till Now, about a woman finding herself again through rock ‘n roll. Follow her journey as an MFA grad student on her blog, Fiction 101.