Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Telling" As a Warning Sign

The other day, I posted the second in an old column series of mine called Redlines. The series starts by examining the way prose can be rearranged for greater impact and fluidity. To prove a point, the before and after examples use identical sentences, and we do nothing more than change the order of presentation. The lesson: Sequencing counts.

After the second article was posted the other day, a wonderful thing happened in the comments. The commenters homed in on the final two sentences in the "after" example and rightly criticized these sentences for "telling" instead of "showing."

Rube could always be counted on to know exactly what the week’s schedule was. He was a good worker and a good friend.

Consider the Source

If sentences like those are firmly embedded in one character's perceptions, they would be considered interior monologue and might be left alone. As interior monologue, thoughts like these are a natural part of the mental chat reel, the constrant stream of the character's consciousness. We pass judgments and reach conclusions about the people around us almost constantly, even when we don't voice those thoughts. Deft writers can use this type of interior monologue to lead the reader to reach the same conclusions the character has reached: in other words, the character informs the reader's opinions of other characters through the interior monologue.

But there's a difference between one character thinking conclusory thoughts and a narrator presenting those same thoughts as exposition outside of any character's frame of reference. In other words, there's a difference between Tex silently opining, Good man, that Rube, and the narrator stating as empirical fact that Rube is a good man.

Good Transitions

It's important to be alert to these kinds of empirical narrative statements for two reasons. First, they interrupt the flow of the narrative and are, as Susan commented, "Gah. Yuck." (Exactly! Great eye, Susan!)

But second, these kinds of empiricisms often are a warning sign that the prose is out of control. As readers and writers, we understand that narrative compression (a different form of exposition in which events are compressed into exposition) is a useful way to create shorthand transitions between key events.

For example, let's say we have Maria, a devoted wife whose husband has just called to inform her that he won a lottery jackpot. Thrilled, Maria takes the rest of the afternoon off and plans a celebration surprise dinner, unaware that her husband has other, less loving things in store. But the writer doesn't want to follow Maria up and down the grocery store aisles or through every beat of her whisk in the kitchen, so instead we read,

Six hours later, after a whirlwind of shopping, cooking and primping, the lasagna was stone cold, the cherry pie was picked clean of half its crust, and Maria's two coats of Great Lash painted trails down her cheeks.

This is an acceptable format for a transition. We get a time frame, a list of events that have happened in that time, and a description of the current state of things. We don't see Maria cry, but we see the tear tracks on her cheeks after her crying is done. It's compressed rather than beat-by-beat. So even thought this is exposition, it's the good kind. Not all "telling" is bad.

And maybe it won't be a temporal transition. Maybe it will be some other kind of exposition that shifts us from one scene to the next.

Mack might have been a lottery winner, but it turned out he was also a rat bastard with a cliche of a blonde, teenaged mistress. They were going to backpack through Peru, Mack had told Maria as if he actually knew where Peru was.

(Assume the writer has a good reason for presenting this information in summary rather than in scene.)

Is Mack actually, empirically a rat bastard? Who is proclaiming his rat-bastardy here? Wait. Don't assume too quickly. See if you can follow that transition with interior monologue in Maria's point of view. Then try doing the same from Mack's point of view. Want to go for a mistress next? You can play that game all day because exposition is omniscient and we can move almost anywhere from there.

Bad Transitions

But now let's say we're not at the top of a scene. We're within the scene with events already in progress. And we're out of control, with events skipping around and characters doubling back to open doors after they've already walked through them. We know we need to fix things, so we reach again for summary -- a statement about Rube's character followed by a statement of Tex's emotional state.

“Tuesday. Wednesday, if it rains.”

Rube could always be counted on to know exactly what the week’s schedule was. He was a good worker and a good friend. Tex was glad that Rube had apologized for talking about Jane that way. “She’s a lady, not a horse.” Tex knew he was pushing his point, but wanted to make sure Rube got it.

Because we understand that we can't logically move from a weather report to a defense of Jane, we put some crappy (Gah. Yuck.) transition there to create a bridge between these two events. This exposition might mimic a good transition in some ways, but it's actually pretty darn bad. As we've already seen, the real fix is to put the events in their proper order in the first place and avoid the need for bad transitions at all.

Which is to say -- commenters, you may rewrite those sentences if you'd like, but if this were a real manuscript, we'd probably just cut them and move forward. And good on ya for catching the weak exposition there. :)



Susan Helene Gottfried said...

So what you're saying, really, is that I should quit writing and become an editor.


Gah. Yuck.

And yes, I DO talk this way in real life. Ask my kids.

Dave Shaw said...

It's a good skill for critiquer's, too, although it's usually frowned upon to say 'Gah. Yuck.' about someone else's work to their face, even over the 'net. ;-)

Anonymous said...

You just solved a major 'what the heck is wrong with this' problem. I'll definitely be bringing it up tomorrow.