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 I just can’t give you an actual example from an actual unpublished manuscript because that would violate the writer’s privacy.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.

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2 Comments

  1. Unfortunate that authors cannot be open to suggestion and learn. I thought my first novel was so good until I went to my first writer’s critique group…then I wondered if I was a writer at all. BUT, I learned so much from their knowledge and experience. I am grateful for anything that improves my writing.

  2. Linda, we all go through moments like that. I think all good writers are open to learn, but some have been force-fed so many “rules” that aren’t really rules, they push back when they hear something that sounds like one.

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