I’ve been thinking a lot about “showing and telling.”
The old adage in fiction is to “show and not tell.” Which, frankly, is bullshit, but covers up a more important point. But let me give an example:
Austerlitz, the book I mentioned last letter (which I just finished) is almost entirely made up of the main character, Austerlitz, telling his personal history to the narrator. The whole book is telling – except for various photographs that pop up across the text (which are super-interesting in their own right, but are worth their own post). And the book is amazing. It’s enthralling, beautifully written, and emotionally resonant, even though the entire thing is told. There’s very little in the way of subtext. Sebald basically just tells you his themes and expects you to think about them. And it works.
It’s got me thinking, since as I write this new novel I’ve already devoted a few chapters to telling – laying out my main character’s past in order to get the exposition out of the way. I think it feels a little more organic than simply shoving a couple of expository chapters in the middle of the narrative, but still, I’m telling. A lot. And a lot of stuff that is actually shown in the previous two novels.
The book has to stand on its own, so I need this exposition in it, but I wonder if readers are going to rebel at the site of such obvious groundwork. Do I need to care, though? If Sebald can do it (though he’s a much stronger writer and prose stylist than me), why can’t I at least try? When is “telling” actually the optimal choice between the two, getting the information out of the way so it doesn’t slow down the narrative? Sometimes everything can’t be shown.
But, on the other hand, there is a germ of truth behind “show and not tell,” because too much telling is narrative kryptonite as well. You load people with too much information, and they get bored, especially if you provide it like you’re giving a book report. Sebald manages to hit that perfect middle, where he’s telling, but he does it in such a way that it never feels like he’s bogging us down in information.
I’m not sure how my chapters fit right now (nor should I, really, I’ve hardly begun the book), but it’s something I’m going to be thinking about as I move forward. I’d love your thoughts, too, especially from a short-story perspective, where you have so much less time to lay out the scene.
On a totally unrelated topic, have you heard the new song from Will Sheff of Okkervil River? Holy cow is it good.