When is it OK to open your novel with “telling?”

Over on Facebook, I got some pushback to last week’s article “The difference between Storytelling and Dramatization.”

One Facebook commenter noted that the “before” examples given in show vs. tell articles like mine are “often deliberately and obviously poor by any standards.” She’s talking about examples like the one I gave:

I did not want to drive to work that day. The storm was fierce, and the preschool was closed, and all I really wanted to do was stay home…

But seriously, I see writing like that all the time in novice writers’ manuscripts. I’m not exaggerating. I just can’t give you an actual example from an actual unpublished manuscript because that would violate the writer’s privacy.

Photo by Gisele Jaquenod • freeimages.com

Photo by Gisele Jaquenod • freeimages.com

The main point my Facebook buddies made was that a “telling” opening is a valid art form, and I ought not go around making rules against it.

Please, please, never read anything on this site as a “rule.” My job is not to make rules. My job is to give advice. That advice comes from years of training under people smarter than me and from years of experience as an editor, writing coach, and writing contest judge. Not to mention as a reader. But it is still just advice.

So yes, I have to admit that an opening that’s more telling than showing could theoretically be done. But I have to say—it would take some serious literary chops to pull off an abstract opening to a novel, especially if you’re trying to appeal to the average modern reader rather than devotees of literary fiction.

Just for kicks, I looked up some of the few literary novels I know of, and they all open with sensory detail, for example, Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow:

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as iron queen, and glass somewhere above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night.

So this starts with a sound effect and then three abstract “telling” sentences before we get to something like a visual—although in this case it’s the absence of a visual because it’s dark—but it’s still a description. Since a later sentence describes faces as being like “half-silvered images in a view finder,” you could film this opening sequence, albeit dimly. And there’s tons of other sensory detail, like “steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame…”

The point is, even in this literary novel—it won a National Book Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer—the opening is not abstract. It contains concrete details and minimal “telling.”

I confess that I did not spend a huge amount of time searching for novels with abstract “telling” openings. If you know of any, I’d be happy to give them a look.

The difference between Storytelling and Dramatization

In his excellent book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, Jeff Gerke urges novel-writers to stop seeing themselves as storytellers and instead think of themselves as filmmakers.

As you’re examining your manuscript for telling consider this: If your book were a movie, what would the camera record?

In a lot of novice manuscripts (and, frankly, in some published manuscripts from experienced writers who should know better) the opening scene, if the book were a movie, would be a person sitting in a chair.

For half an hour.

The character is pondering, reminiscing, ruminating…but he’s not doing anything. Writing about people thinking about stuff does not make for a great novel. Great novels are about people doing stuff. It’s okay to have introspective characters. But don’t let introspection go on and on. A paragraph or two at most. Give it some action to break it up. Give your characters something to do and, whenever possible, someone to talk to.

Thinking in terms of exterior visuals rather than internal thoughts will also help you connect your hero’s inner journey to the outer story. Let’s go back to my tropical storm moment.


Photo © pavel_812 • Fotolia

I did not want to drive to work that day. The storm was fierce, and the preschool was closed, and all I really wanted to do was stay home with my son. But I worked for a newspaper, and unlike schools, newspapers do not shut down for storms. So I drove.

All of that was telling. You could not really put a camera on any of it. Even “the storm was fierce” isn’t specific. “I drove” is a nice strong subject-verb pair, but there’s no context.

Through the gray haze of rain pouring down in sheets, I could see only the taillights on the bumper in front of me. The highway rose, crossing over a street below, and a gust of wind tugged the car, threatening to pull the wheel from my grip. I could imagine that howling storm picking up my little car like a Matchbox toy and throwing it onto the street below. I gripped the wheel tighter in my sweaty hands and slowed even more, my heart pounding.

You see what I did there.

  • Specific visual: rain … taillights
  • Context: highway
  • Physicality: gust of wind … tugged
  • Sound effect: howling
  • Simile: Matchbox toy
  • Visceral reaction: sweaty hands … heart pounding

This is just a snippet. If I were to dramatize this whole event—finding a babysitter, dropping my son off, letting my boss know I’d be late but I was on my way—it would go on for pages. When we convert “telling” passages to “showing,” manuscripts often grow drastically in length. That’s OK. Better to have a long story fully dramatized than a short one that’s just abstract information. Abstracts don’t give readers the emotional experience they are looking for in novels. Drama does.

The kinds of things you choose to include—which visuals, metaphors, sensations, and so on—and which words you use to evoke them will all be characteristics of your unique voice as a writer.

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Use Narrative Summary Appropriately

Last time, I said Inappropriate Narrative Summary was one of the main “telling” problems I see in manuscripts.

Sometimes summary is appropriate. When your hero has to make a long journey, but the journey itself isn’t what’s important to the story, you could put “he traveled across the Atlantic that spring, and arrived in Boston…” and get on with the Boston story. But if his ship is attacked by pirates, then you don’t put “he traveled across the Atlantic that spring. The ship was attacked by pirates, but he fought valiantly beside the ship’s crew. The pirates were defeated, and a week later the ship arrived in Boston.”

ship at sea

Photo by Krzysztof Szkurlatowski • freeimages.com

No, no, no. Pirate attack? Valiant battle? That needs two or three whole scenes right there. At least.

Painful personal account: Years ago, in an early draft of my first novel, the fight scene in which the heroine was captured was about a page and a half and amounted to “they fought for a while, and then she was knocked out.” I’m exaggerating—it wasn’t quite that brief. But I had used narrative summary to skim over a critical turning point in the story. As my writing coach told me at the time “that is unacceptable.”

I needed to describe the whole thing, blow by blow. I didn’t want to. Fight scenes are hard to write, and I don’t enjoy them.

It took a whole afternoon, and a couple pots of tea, but I did it. I would write a sentence, get up, pace around, try to visualize the fight, go back write another sentence, repeat…and periodically realize half of what I had done was crap. Rewrite. Repeat. Wore me out. This is the hard work of writing, and it must be done, no matter how painful it is for us or our characters.

Narrative summary simply cannot be used at crucial turning points. It is only appropriate for describing things that are not important to the story but that are necessary for the reader to make a transition from one part of the story to another.

Is it summary, or is it infodump?

Another place “telling” shows up in manuscripts is when the author (or a character in the story) starts explaining things. This can be done well, but it can also be deadly, which is why we often caution authors to Resist the Urge to Explain.

Sometimes it is efficient to just slip in a sentence or two summarizing some point. Let’s take our man on the ship to Boston. If these are the days leading up to the American Revolution, a sentence or two would be appropriate to orient the reader in the historical period. This could easily be done with a single line of introspection from the viewpoint character.

Since the rebels had dumped the East India Company’s tea into the harbor at Boston, his employer had sent him to insure the safety of their own ships.

The same information could be contained in a line of dialog between the traveler and the ship’s captain.

Done. Get on with the story. A long passage of summary about tea, taxes, and the rebellion would be inappropriate. That would be the kind of infodump I call a research report.

Next time: The difference between Abstract Storytelling and Full Dramatization.

What the bleep does ‘show don’t tell’ mean, anyway?

Writers are forever being told “show don’t tell.” I even put it on my Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist:

The author is showing and not telling.

But what does this mean? And with every writing instructor in the business teaching this all the time, why do we still see vast numbers of manuscripts—and not only novice writers’ manuscripts—with gobs of “telling” in them?

I have a theory.

Humans continually tell stories. We do it all day long. We tell scandalous stories about what our neighbor did. We tell funny stories about what our kids did. We tell self-deprecating stories about how humble we are.

So when writers start filling their novel with “telling,” they don’t see a problem. They are telling stories.

Everyone tells stories, right? We’re wired for story. So new writers sit down and tell their stories, just like everyone else.

Do you see the problem?

Telling the story about the time I had to drive into downtown Orlando on I-4 in a tropical storm is one thing if I tell it around the water cooler. If I’m going to put it in a novel, it has to be totally different. I can’t tell you I was afraid the wind gusts would blow me off the overpass onto the cross-street. I have to put you in that Toyota Corolla with the beating rain as I white-knuckled the steering wheel, fighting the tug of the howling wind against the car.


Photo © EastWest Imaging • Fotolia

Great novel-writing is not storytelling. Storytelling is the recounting of a series of events. Novel-writing is the dramatization of a series of events through vivid sensory details to create a visceral, emotional experience. Storytelling goes to your brain. Novel-writing gets to your heart.

There are three main kinds of telling I see in manuscripts:

  • Emotional Labeling
  • Inappropriate Narrative Summary
  • Abstract Storytelling

I addressed the issue of emotional labeling back when we were talking about Dialogue: Use speech and action to convey emotion.

Inappropriate Narrative Summary occurs when the author minimizes things that should be played out in full. More on that next time.

Abstract Storytelling often involves a combination of the other two, exacerbated by a lack of visuals. We’ll look more deeply into that after we cover Inappropriate Narrative Summary.

Use a voice that’s appropriate to your genre

If, like every good writer, you are reading a lot in your genre, you should have a good feel for what kind of voice is typical. But good writers also read widely. If you have done so, especially if you’ve read a lot of the classics, an “antique” voice can work its way into modern fiction, and you may run into trouble.

The narrative voice is appropriate for the genre and the target audience.

One of the more common errors I see along these lines is novice writers who are fond of Dickens or Tolstoy or Tolkien and try to emulate that lofty style, with its formality, verbosity, and grandiloquence. But this is probably not the way you normally speak, and it’s probably not the way you write if you’re writing in your diary or penning a letter to your mom. You are putting on an inauthentic “author” voice. Modern readers can easily spot that, and the younger your readers are, the less tolerance they have for a lack of authenticity. Continue reading

Use an engaging narrative voice

Whether the narrative is written from the POV of a character or a narrator, it must be engaging. Narrative is everything in the novel that’s not dialogue or interior monologue. So it’s a big chunk of the work, and it must grab the reader. That’s why I caution against Generic Narrator Voice and why this item appears on the checklist:

The narrative voice draws the reader into the story.

Novice writers who have done most of their writing in school or business environments sometimes produce narrative that reads like a term paper or interoffice memo. It’s good, but not great.

It was December. Snow had fallen in the morning, and by afternoon the streets of Detroit were covered in brown slush. Tyler walked home from the bus stop. His feet hurt because his old shoes were too small.

Let me digress for a moment to point out that although the wases and weres in these sentences are not incorrect, they are also not terribly engaging. Critique partners will often pile on such verbs as “passive.” In the example above, only the streets of Detroit were covered in brown slush is truly in the passive voice. That is, the thing doing the covering (brown slush) is placed in the position of object rather than subject of the sentence. Brown slush covered the streets of Detroit would be an acceptable rewrite. Which one is better, though, would depend on whether you want the emphasis on Detroit or on slush.

Enough about passive. I could go on all day but I couldn’t say it as well as Geoffrey Pullum: “Mistakes Are Made (but Using the Passive Isn’t One of Them)”

winter street

Photo by Tibor Fazakas • freeimages.com

It was December is a perfectly acceptable phrase, but it’s neither active nor evocative nor emotive. I advise writers to rewrite sentences starting with it was or there were, not because they are wrong, but because eliminating those phrases almost always produces something stronger.

Tyler walked home from the bus stop is a perfectly serviceable declarative sentence. So is His feet hurt because his old shoes were too small.

Nevertheless, these all suffer from generic narrator voice. Watch what happens when we put this deep into Tyler’s POV and use his voice.

December in Detroit sucked. A morning snowfall turned the whole day cold and gray. Tyler trudged home from the bus stop that afternoon through streets buried in brown slush. The freezing damp seeped through the rips in his old canvas high-tops. The shoes, two sizes too small, pinched his toes at every step.

We retain December and Detroit and emphasize the alliteration by putting them closer together. Brown slush still falls in the emphatic position at the end of the sentence, but now Tyler is in the midst of it. Changing his walking to trudging gives it a different connotation. We aren’t told he’s wearing old, tight shoes, we feel it in the freezing and pinching.

You get the idea. Try writing a similar passage from the POV of an omniscient narrator, and then again from the POV of a character who loves winter.

Voice in fiction is different

A fiction writer has a personality, a style, that carries across books. But the voice in a particular piece of writing may differ from others by the same author depending on the point of view. Which is why I have two different items on my checklist. The appropriate one for the work will apply.

If using Deep POV, the narrative voice reflects the education, culture, and personality of the character.

I am educated and have a rather large vocabulary. I’ve even been known to stump my critique partners with words they were unfamiliar with. But if I write a story in Deep POV, and the POV character is uneducated and has a limited vocabulary, I have to curb my personal style and get in character, as an actor would. On the page, I have to play the part of the POV character. Continue reading