Thursday is fiction day – my posts are for those of us working on the noble art of lying to strangers for money. Death Of 1000 Cuts is my chance to expound honestly about ways to make us all awesome writers – one cut at a time. I’m a published author, I teach creative writing and I’m an experienced manuscript consultant. I’ve also written scripts for video games.
Every so often on Death Of 1000 Cuts, I dismantle a writer’s first page, to see what we can learn from it. If you’d like me to cast my blazing Sauron-esque eye over your best writing, send on the ‘Contact Me’ button on the right. Send me the opening page of your novel or short story – just a title and your name, no synopsis or explanatory blather, absolutely no more than a page, thanks! If I pick it, I’ll do my best to give an honest breakdown of ways to make it better. You can read my previous effort here. By sending it to me, you’re agreeing to let me publish your first page on this blog in perpituity (it remains your intellectual property, obviously) and you accept that I’ll engage with robust, unpatronising criticism.
I’m not in the business of slagging off fiction for LOLs – the aim is to help us all improve at the craft, so I’ll always approach an extract with goodwill and respect, but be prepared that I won’t mince my words either. Please do send your absolute best work, too – feedback is always most useful if it engages with you at the top of your game, otherwise I’ll just be telling you stuff you already know. You might like to read through the first pages of other people who submit, and offer your own feedback in the comments section. It’s a useful practice to get good at identifying and articulating problems with a piece of prose, so you can improve when you come to redraft your own novel or short story.
If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, please do send me your work. Also, comments and feedback in the box below are always welcome. Perhaps you can think of a good example of one of the principles we’re discussing, perhaps you disagree with me – countervailing opinions are great! Anyway, here’s today’s post. Please share it with any writers who you think might enjoy it, and I always love to hear what you think.
Tell, Don’t Show
It was an accepted fact at Alconleigh that Uncle Matthew loathed me. This violent, uncontrolled man, like his children, knew no middle course, he either loved or hated, and generally, it must be said, he hated.
– The Pursuit Of Love, Nancy Mitford
Ooh get me, what a giddy iconoclast.
Show, don’t tell is such a broadly-accepted principle in creative writing circles that it is seldom evoked without an exaggerated rolling of the eyes and implied yawn. Yes, the unspoken addendum goes, of course we all know about that.
Except we don’t, do we? I find myself explaining the principle every week to another author who simply cannot manage the flow of information within their novel. Like the Eucharist, ‘show, don’t tell’ is easy to pay dreary lip service to, tough to believe and enact in your gut and heart and mind, and awareness of the gap between daily experience and the ideal is liable to fill one with surges of peculiar, unanchored guilt.
I don’t, incidentally, blame authors for finding it difficult to come to grips with. Finding ways of elegantly hinting at things through drama is one of the central problems of writing prose fiction. You never solve it, exactly, just bring the task more or less into focus.
And, of course, it’s balderdash.
Sorry, I really like saying balderdash. Balderdash. It reminds me of a joke. I went to the doctor’s yesterday and said: ‘Doctor, the head of my penis has split into large petal-like protrusions with a black dot in the centre.’ The doctor said: ‘That’s poppycock.’ A serious message there about men’s unwillingness to discuss health problems with their GP.
But it’s true, isn’t it? Not the flower-bellend joke, the whole ‘show, don’t tell is nonsense’ assertion. Of course it’s useful, but you mustn’t let it become a shiny set of peer-sanctioned manacles.
So many of our favourite novels are ‘voice’ novels, where the narrator quite pointedly states facts and opinions and we thrill at their directness and chutzpah and oomph, at the lovely cadenced brio of the thing. Sure, in the extract above, Nancy Mitford’s narrator goes on to show the brilliant comic creation Uncle Matthew in action, to demonstrate how this hatred manifests itself – naturally he’s not quite the ogre we’ve been led to believe (although he is a bigot and imbecile – just a funny, occasionally vulnerable one) – but there’s something refreshing about hearing someone cut the crap and just tell it like it is.
You don’t always have to go all round the houses. Sometimes directness is best. Try dramatizing and implying the existence of a lamppost and see how far it gets you. Sometimes we want the narrator to turn to us and say: oh, this guy? He’s an asshole.
On the other hand, here be dragons. It’s very fashionable to piss against the prevailing wind, but few people can do it without getting their brogues wet. If the extract above works (and I’m not necessarily prepared to go to the mat for The Pursuit Of Love – it has its high points, to be sure) it’s partly because it’s a piece of showing, disguised (as all showing, by its nature, must be). It apparently tells us something about Uncle Matthew, but at the same time, it characterises our narrator, Fanny, by showing us a little of her worldview.
It’s all too easy to get cute with your narration, start bluntly stating things, and quietly con yourself into thinking you’re being brave and forthright when in fact you’re colluding with your protagonist to skive off the central business of fiction, which is the transformation of themes and ideas and desires into conflicts and speech and action and all that wonderful crunchy specific stuff that exists in the world around us. However brilliant your anecdote about the fight outside Ladbrokes, far better to let us feel the warm, damp press of crowd, smell spilt cider fizzling on hot tarmac, hear the clatter of brown glass and hollow boom as Christie shoulder barges Nessa into the bottle bank, the cheer that goes up from the boys in tatty fake Reeboks on the roof, the dopplering siren, the pistol crack report of Christie’s knee giving out.
Or maybe not. But you should’ve seen the fight, man. Christie got fucked up.
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