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In Defense of Telling: Orienting Readers and Respecting Their Time

I recovered from my crisis of confidence, but I still have yet to begin Rainie Day #2 because of matters of life and death. Literally. In the past month, I attended two conferences and a funeral. (Not quite as catchy as Four Weddings and a Funeral, but believe me, it's been just as manic and emotionally fraught around here as that movie.)

I have many things to write about, but I'll save the heavy subjects for another day. Today I want to talk about that ubiquitous and well-intended, yet ultimately reductive "rule" of writing, "Show, don't tell."

The morning after I came back from the funeral, I dragged myself to work and opened my email accounts to find a rejection from a literary agent. She thought there was "too much telling rather than showing in the opening pages."

This email was upsetting for many reasons, and only one of them was the agent's accidentally horrible timing.

  1. The agent misspelled my name in the salutation. I don't care how many emails she sends in a day; that's just plain sloppy.
  2. There is no such thing as "too much telling." A writer might bog down a story with irrelevant telling, or tell when showing would be more effective, but she can't tell "too much." There is no hard-set maximum of telling allotted per novel.
  3. I'm a meticulous writer. Every sentence I type, I choose after carefully weighing it against the many other sentences I might type instead. And then I revise, revise, revise. So it's infuriating when someone dismisses all of that careful thought with a blanket statement like, "there's too much telling."

I wrote those pages the way I did for a reason: they do what opening pages ought to do.

What Opening Pages Ought to Do

After looking up some of the novels this agent recently represented, I can see that she likes fast-paced action right out of the gate. These novels begin with startling dialogue and dangerous confrontations. They drop readers head-first into adrenaline-pumping action. Another cozy mystery writer commented on Query Tracker that the same agent rejected her manuscript because the murder occurred too late...on page 12!

Many times, in many places, I've read that the opening pages of a book need to "grab" readers and "suck them in." Writers (and agents, apparently) often interpret this to mean they need to stuff page one with thrills and chills. They write prologues showing the last terrifying moments of a victim's life, or a grisly crime from the perspective of the unhinged serial killer. Or they write a short teaser of the life-threatening climax of the novel, and then they fly back in time to start the story properly at the beginning.

This approach can suck readers in, but it can also push them away. "Bait and switch" openings can come across as cheap and manipulative. Readers get invested in the characters on page one, only to see them bite the bullet on page three. Then they have to start over and get to know the real protagonists.

Most importantly, dropping readers in the middle of Crazy Town with no context is disorienting. When I skimmed the first pages of those fast-paced novels, I didn't know who these people were, or what was going on, or what the heck these stories were supposed to be about.

The opening pages of a novel should answer three basic questions for a reader.

  1. Who is the hero, and will I like him?
  2. What is the setting, and will I enjoy it?
  3. Where is this story going, and will it be interesting?

Simply answering these questions satisfactorily will "grab" readers who will enjoy the story. You don't have to dangle the heroine off of a cliff on page one, you just have to give readers an accurate idea of the reading experience they're in for.

Telling Orients Readers

Below are the first 300 words, thereabouts, of the manuscript for Whacked in the Stacks. Arr, there be telling ahead!

I'm not a superstitious person, but the morning of Friday, March 13 nearly turned me into one.

First I ruined my best skirt. That was my fault. I should know better than to read emails on my phone and eat strawberries & cream oatmeal at the same time.

Then my cat, Mr. Rochester, coughed up a hairball on my favorite Mary Janes. That was also my fault. I should know better than to leave my things on the floor, where Mr. Rochester can and will destroy them.

After I changed my skirt, scrubbed my shoes, and jogged through the freezing rain to my car, the engine wouldn't start. That wasn't my fault. I'd taken Cindy the Civic to a service center the weekend before, and the mechanic had said there was nothing wrong with her. Cindy disagreed. She grumbled and screeched when I turned the key. I petted her dashboard and gave her compliments until she started up begrudgingly.

I checked the clock compulsively on my way to work. With every minute that passed, my blood pressure rose. It was the worst possible day of the month to run late.

At 8:47 I turned onto Duvall Street, the main thoroughfare for Downtown Sea Breeze. At 8:49 I passed the Rocket Burger, where a five-foot plastic astronaut named Buzz All-Beef saluted me with one hand and held up a giant double cheeseburger with the other. At 8:51 I reached Fields Park, a.k.a. "The Fields." The magnolia trees stood with buds at the ready, itching for the go-ahead from the sun to burst into bloom. As I imagined the lighter skies and pink flowers soon to come, my blood pressure lowered a bit. If nothing else went wrong, I'd arrive at the library a few minutes before nine.

Of course something else did go wrong. Very, very wrong.

Looking at the list of questions opening pages ought to answer, I hope it's obvious why I wrote mine this way.

First, I aimed to give the reader a general picture of my heroine in the short space of one page. She's humble and readily admits her faults, she's modern in her habits yet conservative in her dress, and she responds to problems with patience, not tantrums. Also, she's highly educated and bookish, as one must be to name a cat after a classic literary character.

Second, I aimed to root the reader in the setting of the stormy Oregon coast. The freezing rain, the quirky seaside resort town, the hint of spring in the air.

Third, I aimed to signal to readers that the upcoming pages hold conflict aplenty. My very first sentence announces that many things are about to go wrong. Not only is my heroine about to meet disaster head-on, but more disasters await her when she arrives to work late.

Now, here's how I might have written the opening pages if I believed showing to be universally better than telling.

The oatmeal fell from my spoon in slow motion, pink and shimmering in the fluorescent light of my kitchen. Plop! The warm glob of strawberries & cream landed right in the lap of my best navy pencil skirt. Dry-clean only, of course.

"Nooo," I moaned. "Not today!"

I put my phone down on the table and grabbed a napkin to wipe off the oatmeal. It was my fault, I knew. I should know better than to read emails and eat breakfast at the same time.

As I was scooping up the last oat flake, I heard a suspicious hacking noise behind me. My heart sank even lower.

I turned just in time to witness my cat, Mr. Rochester, cough up a hairball on my favorite Mary Janes. I swallowed my irritation. This was also my fault. I should know better than to leave my things on the floor, where Mr. Rochester can and will destroy them.

I sighed and rose from the table. I grabbed my Mary Janes and headed to my bedroom. I scrubbed my shoes in the bathroom sink and dug through my dresser for a clean skirt.

Ten minutes later, I jogged through the freezing rain to my car. I rubbed my hands together to warm them and slipped the key into the ignition.

The engine wouldn't start.

I dropped my head onto the steering wheel. Why today, of all days? I'd taken Cindy the Civic to a service center just the weekend before, and the mechanic had said there was nothing wrong with her. Cindy clearly disagreed.

Taking deep, calming breaths, I tried again. Cindy grumbled and screeched when I turned the key. I tried again, and again, petting Cindy's dashboard and giving her compliments until she started up begrudgingly.

I checked the clock compulsively on my way to work. With every minute that passed, my blood pressure rose. It was the worst possible day of the month to run late.

This isn't a bad opening, but it doesn't do what the real one does.

First, I cover much less in these 300 words than I did in the first 300 words of my manuscript, because "showing" takes up a lot of space. I don't even get to the setting. This could be any woman in any city in an English-speaking country. Readers won't know where they are, and they won't see anything that might entice them to stick around.

Second, this passage gives readers no reason to care about the heroine, and the story doesn't seem to go anywhere. So she had a bad morning and she's running late for work. So what? Why should anyone be interested in a glob of oatmeal falling from a spoon, or a cat hacking up a hairball? As I wrote in "Show, but Sometimes Tell," the purpose of showing is to get readers emotionally invested in a scene. Only the most melodramatic of fashionistas would be emotionally invested in an oatmeal-stained pencil skirt.

Third, and most important to my mind, the humorous voice of the heroine is now buried under all of the showing. She seems to take herself and her apparel much too seriously. Imagine if The Wonder Years had no witty voice-overs, and it was simply a drama about a cute kid growing up in the 70s. The tone of the show would be completely different, right? Similarly, the way Rainie tells the story says as much about her as what she does and how she feels.

It is possible to orient readers through showing, but telling conveys much more, much faster.

Telling Respects Readers' Time

As I read some of those fast-paced novels, I was irked by the authors. They seemed to purposely withhold crucial information, forcing me to dig through their words for clues about the characters and the events taking place. Here's the first page of one of them.

Every Southern belle knows it's not so much what you do, but rather what you're wearing while doing it. And when in doubt, always apply more lipstick.

Good thing Sandy had never been mistaken for a belle, because there was no shade of lipstick in the South that matched grand theft auto charges while wearing ducky galoshes.

"Either get on or get out of the way," Sandy said to the stubborn male standing between her and freedom.

Diablo had mammoth thighs, a trunk for a neck, and as Mr. Ferguson's contracted stud bull, horns that could tear through a steel wall. And right now those horns were pointed at Sandy.

But she wasn't about to let some misinformed male with caveman tendencies and bad breath stop her from doing what was right. Even when doing what was right sucked. Even when it accompanied a brutal summer storm, interrupted the only solid sleep she had gotten in weeks, and landed her smack dab in the middle of trouble.

Even then. Because Sandy could live with trouble. But regret was something she never wanted to feel again.

So who exactly is this woman, and what's going on? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that the heroine lives in the South and her situation involves grand theft auto charges, ducky galoshes, a bull, a thunderstorm, and sleepless nights.

Not only does the page not tell me what's going on, beyond vague hints of "trouble" and "regret," but it plays with readers' heads. When someone writes the word "male," a reader images a human male. I formed a picture of the scene in my mind based on what the author told me was happening. Then she tore the picture up and made me rebuild it from scratch, mid-sentence, by revealing that the "stubborn male" is a completely different species. I was left disoriented and very annoyed.

This author must have been under the impression that if you confuse readers, they'll be intrigued and feel compelled to keep turning pages to figure out what she's trying to say. I know from personal experience that readers have the exact opposite reaction to muddy writing. If they can't tell where and when they are, and who exactly they're reading about, they get angry and put the book down.

In my early novels and short stories, I tried to be fancy. I tried to show everything in creative ways instead of telling people point blank what was happening. The comments in the margins from critique partners frequently looked like this.

  • "I was confused about who said this line."
  • "I can't really tell what just happened."
  • "Wait...how much time has passed since the last chapter? Where are we?"

And then they would stop critiquing after chapter three and never contact me again, because I had committed the unpardonable offense of wasting their time.

Being fancy forces readers to put time and energy into interpreting scenes. This is a good thing for creating emotional investment, but a very bad thing for conveying simple concepts. There's no point in making readers work hard to determine...

  • Who is acting or speaking
  • What the actors are doing
  • When and where the scene takes place

In other words, you shouldn't show readers what's going on. You tell readers what's going on, and what's going on shows them more complex ideas.

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