Keeping the Lights On: Storytelling Techniques, part 3


My last post, “The Aristotle Problem,” argued that we fiction writers, when we think about writing novels and stories, tend to underestimate the importance of “telling.”

I even suggested that we can blame Aristotle’s Poetics for some part of this imbalance, because of Aristotle’s overwhelming focus on the role of plot. Modern fiction writers have created a much wider range of tales than The Poetics could imagine, and a large reason for this expansion is the development of better methods of “telling.”

In my view, rather than pulling a reader out of a story, skillful narration deepens that reader’s immersion, brings them closer to the action.

Tomorrow, I’m going to offer some “telling” techniques to try out, so you can see if you agree with me. Today, however, I’d like to present another way of thinking about the importance of telling. I’m going to make the bolder claim that close attention to telling — getting the “telling” part of your story right — is a necessary part of almost all good fiction.

Photo credit: Christie's

Chekhov’s handwriting (photo credit: Christie’s)

Every aspiring writer has heard the famous phrase, “Show, Don’t Tell.” The origin of this rule is frequently attributed to Anton Chekhov, who is supposed to have said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” The idea is that in prose fiction, depicting vivid, sensory details is always better for the reader than using a narrator’s voice to explain things.

On one level, this is definitely true. It surely seems better writing to say, “Her hands were trembling and she couldn’t make them stop,” than “She was afraid.”

It might give us pause, however, when we learn that Chekhov seems not to have actually said those words: they seem to be someone else’s summary of part of a letter he once wrote to his brother. What he actually said was much more limited in application:

In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.

The “small details” idea is good advice. It would be a mistake, however, to interpret Chekhov’s message as: “Never tell.”

And, if that really was what Chekhov meant, it would be a bit of a problem, because he did not follow such a harsh, impractical dictum in his own stories. In “The Lady with The Pet Dog,” perhaps his most celebrated tale, Chehkov deploys an incredibly skilled range of narrative techniques, some which seem to obey the rule of his letter (“At home in Moscow everything was in its winter routine; the stoves were heated, and in the morning it was still dark when the children were having breakfast and getting ready for school, and the nurse would light the lamp for a short time.”) and some which do not: (“It seemed to him that he had been so schooled by bitter experience that he might call them what he liked…”). In that story’s haunting and justly famous ending, the narrator has no problem stepping in and stating the situation as the protagonist sees it, presenting Gurov’s troubled, tangled thoughts in clear, precise, narrated Russian.

This should not be a surprise: it’s simply good writing.

The trouble with “Show, Don’t Tell” is that “showing,” on its own, is not as good as people think it is. A lot of the time, “showing” needs help. And this is because we readers expect a lot from language when it is arranged in a work of prose fiction. We want fictional stuff to mean something, at least relative to the stuff in the rest of the story.

That sounds a bit abstract. To show you what I mean: imagine a novel as a long line of glowing lightbulbs. For every distinct piece of the novel, there’s one shining bulb, so a full novel is thousands of lightbulbs long. I don’t know what each lightbulb corresponds to — maybe it’s a single sentence, or a single scene. It doesn’t matter. The point is simply that, in a good book, the light bulbs are all glowing. You, the reader, looking down at the novel, see all of it shining. Maybe some parts of the line are extra bright — the really good bits — and some are more dim — the less enjoyable passages, the moments you paused to check Facebook.

If a bulb is off, that means you can understand it, probably, on a literal level. You can read the words. But you can’t understand it on a fictional level. If you were asked why the author put the sentence in, you might be stumped.

Now, let’s take a simple, plain sentence, standing on its own. “The table was blue.” Right now, I’m guessing, you aren’t getting very much from that sentence. It’s not a great sentence, is it? The table was blue. If that sentence was a lightbulb, it would definitely be off. The bulb would just be sitting there, no glow discernable.

How do we get that lightbulb to turn on? Well, one method would be to surround it with other sentences — allies, predecessors, and followers — that would help to give it meaning. When that simple sentence is part of a densely-packed thicket of words, it can shine very brightly indeed.

And the peculiar thing is that we can make that simple, dull sentence mean anything we want it to mean. Depending on the material we surround it with, we can make “The table was blue” evoke all kinds of emotions in the reader. Language is both empty and full, everything and nothing, all of the time.

Let’s put that sentence in a melodramatic horror novel, written by a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft, about a scientist fighting a murderous demonic being, The Azure Terror. This being, just before it kills someone, enters into inanimate objects and turns them blue.

He unlocked his front door and went inside. Home, at last! He felt a great weight lifting from his shoulders. The Azure Terror had been vanquished! Finally, he could marry Cecille, if that lovely woman would still have him. He could begin his life anew. Smiling at this thought, he switched on the kitchen light. He stopped, frozen, his eyes locked on the table. The table was blue. It couldn’t be! The table was blue. He began to scream.

Here’s the same sentence in a satirical story about the pretensions of two hipsters in Cleveland:

Heinrich and Henny were both blessed with healthy trust funds, and Henny was actively managing her holdings in the tech industry (the initial set of shares had been a birthday gift from uncle V.), yet the two of them insisted on decorating their “bargain” apartment with poorly chosen thrift store furniture. The end result was hideous. Nothing matched anything else. The chairs were a garish red plastic. The table was blue. Amateurish pastel sunsets decorated the walls.

Here it is again in a heartfelt tale of self-discovery:

The town of Whitby was cold and windy, but I suspected I would be happy there. The very first AirBnB I checked out, a third floor studio, was full of character. The kitchen counter was inlaid with pretty stones. The table was blue. A small balcony looked over the waves, promising that I could spend my mornings contemplating the sea with a cup of coffee. Yes, I thought. Yes.

None of these passages are very good. I don’t think any of them will win the Booker. But I do think that in each of them, our sentence “The table was blue” is shining more brightly than it did on its own. It means something. Maybe it’s not a lot — but the lightbulb has turned on.

My argument is that in a lot of not-quite-working fiction (probably the majority of fiction being handed into fiction workshops and writing circles), the lightbulbs are not bright enough. Perhaps the story starts well, communicating itself richly to the reader, but soon enough, it fades. Somewhere along the line, the lightbulbs flick off. Of course, we readers still know what the words on the page mean. We know how to read, and we’re trying our best. We understand the literal meaning of “The table was blue.” But the intended fictional meaning of that sentence is not something we can automatically get.

And, while this problem exists at the level of the sentence, it is even more troublesome at the level of the scene — and much harder to fix. There’s no guarantee that a scene where two characters argue over breakfast will necessarily mean what you intend it to mean.

So — that’s the argument of the lightbulbs. If you are the writer of a story, it’s your job to make sure the lightbulbs stay on, that the prose on the page continues to mean something.

(I know there’s a huge “political” dimension to this argument: “But what about ‘difficult’ novels like Ulysses?” Forgive me, but I’m deliberately avoiding it until a later post.)

If you accept this argument, if you think it’s interesting, my suggestion is that you then need to accept one more premise. The additional premise is simply that while it is possible to keep the lightbulbs on by presenting a compelling and continuous series of dramatic scenes, by purely “showing,” this is much more difficult than it seems. It’s really hard to present a sequence of actions and events over the two-hundred-plus pages of a novel and expect the reader to get everything. I’m sure it can be done. But my advice to an aspiring writer is to follow the example of the great authors of the past and present, and make sure, as your story progresses, that you also tell the reader what these scenes and passages mean. In other words, to follow what Chehkov actually did, instead of what people claimed he said.

Telling is simply a lot faster than showing: a good mix of drama and narration will make you a much more effective, nimble writer. It’s easier to keep the lightbulbs on that way.

There are lots of ways to “tell” well, and they vary a great deal in subtlety and scale, but they really work. I’ll present the first one tomorrow.

10 thoughts on “Keeping the Lights On: Storytelling Techniques, part 3

  1. Thanks for yet another good, informative post. I would argue, though, that one should be careful with “showing” something and then “telling” it afterwards, since it can quickly become repetitive. The “telling” has to bring something new to the scene as well, but it is even better if you can “show” things (at least character emotions) in a way that is still clear so the “telling” isn’t needed.

    Liked by 1 person

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