Monday, May 31, 2010

On the "Show, Don't Tell" Rule: You Just Showed Me You're An Idiot

   There's a rule in writing called "show, don't tell."  Typically this is construed to mean that an author shouldn't pull a Jane Austen and tell his readers that his character is demure and polite and good-looking; he should put them in an action sequence that demonstrates this.  Hemingway was a badass at this: in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," he never comes out and says that Francis Macomber was a coward.  He doesn't even show him doing something cowardly; instead, what you hear is Francis' wife haranguing him about backing down from shooting a lion the day before.  This way, not only do you know that Francis did something cowardly, you also get to find out what his wife thinks of that.
   Lately, I've come to believe this rule can be applied to almost all areas of a story, and not just to characterization.  Basically the rule is one of physicality: the emotional terrain should be reflected in the physical setting (see "Hills Like White Elephants" and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance); the emotional states of the characters should be reflected in said characters' physical bodies (see Twilight); the overall message of the story should be reflected in the physical events (read: plot) of the story (see One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest); the personalities of the characters should be reflected in the physical actions and speech of those characters (see any Hemingway story ever); and, even, the overall emotional resonance of the story should be reflected in the physical language with which it's told (see The Satanic Verses). And today, on the plane back from New York, I read a book that totally hammered this home in an appalling way:  The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
   I liked this book a lot--until the last five pages, where it devolved into a big fat mess of contradicting its own message.  That's painful to me.  That's like meeting the man of your dreams, raising a family with him, and then finding out twelve years later he was a bigamist and was leading a double life the whole time.
   That said, you shouldn't worry about the fact that I'm going to spoil the ending, because the ending SUCKS and betrays everything you thought you knew about the intention of the novel.  And the worst part is, I don't think the author did it on purpose.
   Bone to pick #1:  I hate it when people who aren't geniuses try to write from the point of view of characters who are.  Your characters can only be as smart as you are.  If you are wondering whether or not you can pull this off, I'll tell you right now the answer is a big fat NO.  Don't mention the level of intelligence of your characters.  Just make them what they are; if they're geniuses, people will notice without you having to tell them.  And let me just tell you, Ms. Barbery, nobody--f*cking NOBODY--sits down to read Kant for fun. I don't care how many clever schemes you have about eating plums, or whatever the hell that was about, Kant is a bitch to read no matter how smart you are.  He doesn't have beautiful prose.  He needed a g*ddamn editor, and he also needed to stop inventing terms like "the categorical imperative" when what he actually meant was "logically derived version of the golden rule."  So however genius-y your character is, she still doesn't sit down to read Kant like it's this week's New York Times.  Especially translated into French.
   A large section of this book's space was dedicated to the contemplation of class values.  I loved this about the book.  This is something Americans don't think about enough, as a whole, and which deserves to be talked about, and all in all it was a great thematic message to write a book around.  But basically, what happens is that this incredibly intelligent woman has been hiding her intelligence, and the education she provided to herself, for her whole life, because she equates education with the upper class, and because she learned a nasty lesson when she was younger that trying to be part of the upper class when you are not will get you killed, or at least circumstantially punished.
   But over the course of the book, this highly self-educated lower-class woman forms a friendship with a highly-educated upper-class man, who takes her out to dinner one night to inform her that her fate is of her own choosing, and that what happened a long time ago will not necessarily happen again.
   Then, the next day, she dies.
   Yes.  We have just spent two hundred pages learning that the American Dream is a reality, that you can transcend what appears to be the fate of your upbringing through education and sheer willpower, and then our dear Muriel Barbery circumstantially punishes the woman with a brutal death-by-semi
              without realizing she just violated the entire premise of the novel.
   Honestly, I would have been fine with the idea, had I believed that the message of inevitability of class circumstance was really her message.  
   I could have handled that.
   But then, the little rich thirteen-year-old genius who had also befriended our dear self-educated lower-class woman decides not to kill herself because, as she learns from the death of said self-educated lower-class woman, there are moments of permanent beauty within transience.
   The woman just got beamed by a delivery truck after attempting to discard her lower-class value beliefs, and I'm expected to think that what the genius girl gains from this event is the knowledge that human beings actually can transcend both their limiting beliefs and their circumstances?
    I think the genius thirteen-year-old might have noticed that, in fact, exactly what our lower-class woman believed (that you will be punished for class transgressions) came true.  In which case, she probably would have offed herself.
   Reason number thirteen gazillion why your characters can't be smarter than you: you will end up writing what you want to happen, instead of what actually happened based on the physicality of your inventions.  Once you set that ball rolling you will be racing to keep up.
  So, in summation, folks:  Show, don't tell, and I won't have to toss your book in the bin on the way out of the terminal.

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