When Rules Are Made to Be Broken
The three most often repeated “rules of writing,” recited by rote and left uninvestigated and unchallenged in virtually every writing workshop and English class are capable of doing terrible damage to good writing. The Terrible Three are:
Show, don’t tell.
Nonsense. Good writing involves “showing”--that is, dramatizing--as well as “telling”--employing exposition. An avoidance of “telling” may convolute clear motivation (exemplified by “showing”). It compromises setting. It obfuscates situation.
We do not speak of “story-showing”; we speak of “storytelling.” Many great works of literature are largely expositional, including Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and--try this one--Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” In the latter’s “Overture,” Proust roams, in exposition, through the inner landscape of the child Marcel’s need for his mother’s nightly bedtime kiss. Now he can move on to exemplify--”show”--the drama of his foiled attempts. Thomas Bernhard’s masterpiece, “Concrete,” is all gasping exposition until the end opens into eerie dramatization.
The effect of “scenes”--showing--may be created through refined “telling,” as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which is in major part exposition, with scant dialogue often used as dramatic punctuation: “The world is round, like an orange.”
A good way to add life to exposition is to capture a dramatic moment, to hear someone speak, see someone move, act--yes, show--since time is the accumulation of moments.
Even in film, the quintessential art of “showing,” great directors like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Billy Wilder use bold exposition. Alma, in Bergman’s “Persona,” announces, “I am a 24-year-old nurse.” The psychiatrist involved informs that an older actress went silent during a performance of “Electra” as we see the actress’ anguished face. A mysterious male voice tells us that the nurse and the actress were advised by the psychiatrist to go into the country, as we see them moving along a jagged landscape that projects (a la Alain Robbe-Grillet) the emotional entanglement they are entering.
Write about what you know.
Many great works of art would never have been written had the author restricted himself to what he “knows.” The moody spinster Emily Bronte wrote of a love so passionate that it finds its only safe place in hell. Think about Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Purportedly, Vladimir Nabokov was outraged when little girls popped up at his door on Halloween, inferring that he wrote in “Lolita” about what he knew. Gustave Flaubert, asked how he came to understand Emma so well, answered, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” The good fiction writer relies primarily on imagination, not information, not investigation.
The writer doesn’t deal with “reality.” He deals with verisimilitude. We would be just as jarred if, along the weary way to California, Ma and Tom Joad encountered crazy old Dorothy trudging along dusty paths, as we would be if crazy old Dorothy encountered Ma and Tom Joad skipping along her yellow brick road. In both instances--Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”--it is not reality or fantasy but verisimilitude that would be jarred.
A better admonition: Write about what you feel. Too lofty. Write about what you feel you know. Too elevated. This is it: Write about whatever you want.
Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, King Lear, the annoying Hamlet--none grasps our sympathy entirely; nor does Othello. Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” is no lover of humanity. In Greek tragedy, just as in popular bestsellers, the most villainous and unsympathetic characters are the ones we remember, including Medea (about whom this writer, however, wrote sympathetically in a novel, proving that Jason was the villain). Ellen Berent, in that underrated novel “Leave Her to Heaven” by Ben Ames Williams, is chilling and unforgettable; she blithely kills everyone who comes close to her husband. Blanche DuBois is sympathetic until we imagine her taking up quarters in one’s own house and then our sympathy might rush to villainous Stanley. Willy Loman is most often irritating, Lolita is dumb but cunning and Humbert Humbert is a pervert.
We love hateful, selfish, manipulative characters--Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Iago. Catherine and Heathcliff are horrors (and still manage at times to tear our hearts out). Whom do you sympathize with in any of Kafka’s books? The governess in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is a driven demon. In Carson McCullers’ perfect novel, “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” it is instantly apparent that the author despises every one of her characters, and so does the reader, but one reads on. Despicable, awful, frightening--but fascinating. That’s the key: Fascinating. Write about characters, good or evil, who fascinate.
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