Continuing the series on Show, Don’t Tell.
I have this awful habit of writing little narrative “character sketches” devoid of dialogue or action; simply summarizing the personalities of my heroes. I was all set to write a post about how to avoid this—with the “actions speak louder than words” approach I touched on in this post—but Wednesday morning, Mark Twain changed my mind.
I had settled in to read a little Huck Finn for twenty minutes while I ate breakfast. And there—yes, really—was a character sketch.
This naturally gave me second thoughts on the contents of this blog post. But as I kept reading, I realized my initial thoughts weren’t wrong—just a bit simplistic. Because here’s the thing: to show, you have to tell.
After all, we’re not making picture books here. All we have are words. What can you do with words besides tell? The trick is to figure out what you want to show, and then use telling to do it.
Here’s a little of what Huck, our first person narrator, says in his character sketch:
Col. Grangerfield was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and pap he always said it, too, although he warn’t no more quality than a mud-cat, himself…
…There warn’t no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn’t ever loud. He was as kind as he could be—you could feel that, you know, and so you had confidence. Sometimes he smiled, and it was good to see, but when he straightened himself up like a liberty-pole, and the lightning began to flicker out from under his eyebrows you wanted to climb a tree first, and find out what the matter was afterwards. He didn’t ever have to tell anybody to mind their manners—everybody was always good mannered where he was.
All telling. Telling in a perfectly charming way, but telling nonetheless. Note, however, that he’s not telling us anything important. This character doesn’t last more than a chapter or two. So why the time spent on him?
Because by telling about Grangerfield, Twain is showing much more:
Society of the time: Huck’s mention of “well born,” and of the opinions of his father and the Widow Douglas—characters on completely opposite ends of the personality and status spectrum—shows us something about the beliefs of the time.
Huck’s character: we learn what a kind, decent person Huck thinks Grangerfield is. We later discover the family is feuding (pointlessly, as you’d expect) with a neighbor family. When a Grangerfield girl runs away to marry a boy from the rival family, the feud escalates into a bloody battle. Rather than changing his mind about the family, Huck blames himself for their deaths, as he had unwittingly helped deliver a message between the two lovers.
So this little bit of telling about a minor character actually serves to show us a lot about our main character.
The takeaway? If you find you must “tell” something, stop and ask yourself what that telling shows. What are your words indirectly illustrating? If it shows only what it tells, rewrite.
But if by telling a little, you show a lot—you’re good!