Friday, November 21, 2008

The show and tell police (2)

In my entry a couple below this one, plus the useful comments from Jim and Vanessa, we talked about show and tell, and the way it has been taken to extremes in current writing. Vanessa suggests the tide may be turning which, if true, is good news indeed. She mentions Jhumpa Lahiri, who I haven’t read, but I’ve ordered her story collection from the library and I’m looking forward to reading that.

The novel I mentioned was Edna Ferber’s Fanny herself, a glorious feminist saga from 1917 which works because you actually care about first Molly Brandeis and then her daughter Fanny. In my original comment I gave an example where Ferber didn’t bother with the tiresome show rather than tell which besets modern novels.

A chapter on, we get a fine example of show at its best which, I think, demonstrates how to use show and tell, and gives further proof why the example I gave wasn’t worthy of the elaborate set-up it would be given in today’s writing styles.

The scene is a rally for women’s suffrage, when 40,000 women marched through the streets of New York. The watching Fanny has become highly successful in commerce, but at the cost of her artistic and humanistic sensibilities. This scene, of course, turns her back towards her true nature.

All predictable enough, but it’s very well handled. A common show and tell device, to which I alluded in the previous post, is the creation of deliberate similarities with a previous scene to show how a character’s responses differ. Allied to that is the careful set-up, where a comment or action early in the story comes back to haunt the character later. That’s what happens here but, in doing it, Ferber manages to link to no fewer than four separate scenes.

What happens is that Fanny is so struck by the parade she rushes to buy paper and pens so she can draw it. This goes straight back to an early scene when Clarence Heyl scolds her for stopping her artwork, and tells her that one day she will be compelled to take it up again. But as she is doing the drawing now she becomes animated, almost agitated, as though she is herself extracting life from the drawing she is creating. She lets out an involuntary cry, exactly as she had that very first time, back in Winnebago when she was a child and drew someone for the first time. So, Ferber has linked this action to two vital scenes, one from when Fanny was a child and her character was forming, and one when she was a mature woman being warned that she was taking a wrong turning. Thus, it is delving deep back into the narrative for its sustaining power.

But there are two further connections. When it is finished, Fanny rushes to a newspaper office and sells her drawing, because both she and the newspaper editor realise that the picture she has drawn, of an ordinary working girl waving a banner defiantly, is more powerful and more distinctive than the pictures the other papers will use, of the leaders of the march. This action is predicated on two previous scenes in the story. Immediately prior to this episode, Fanny’s boss, Fenger, says of the march that it is impressive but it is too sprawling to have an effect and it needs something specific to encapsulate it. This is, of course, what Fanny does with her picture, and it is only in retrospect that we realise that Fenger’s words were the ones that finally spurred her into action. But this could only happen because earlier in the story Clarence Heyl sews the seed, when he tells Fanny that her drawings, because they seem to capture the human spirit, have a way of telling a unique and complete story without the need for words.

And this is important, because Fanny, who is conflicted between commerce and art, is being shown to be driven by the words of her gurus of commerce and art, Fenger and Clarence Heyl. Each is important to her, so it is entirely right that what finally drives her comes from words spoken by each. It adds a layer of complexity to her character which is completely credible and does not feel manufactured. We are being shown a moment of change, and everything before has been leading up to it.

And thus, this is a very powerful scene. It feels organically linked to the preceding narrative, entirely character-driven. And it is given space to breathe, so that the reader can immediately understand its import. Had that previous scene I referred to, in which we were simply told that she had, effectively, lost her artist’s eye, been drawn out into some protracted “show” scene, it would have seriously detracted from this important turning point in the novel because we would have felt that, far from being a turning point, it was just more of the same.

Fantastic writing. Detail where detail is necessary. Exposition where it helps drive the story.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

reat points, Tom. This 'show not tell' 'fashion' is a bad thing, because it seems to me that so many people who are in teaching positions actually don't understand it.

I was helping out a writer'friend the other day, someone who is more used to doing stage writing, scripts.

He was agonising over making the 'unimportant' link passages all show, as he had been told categorically that expostition is 'tell' and therefore 'wrong'.

(I put 'unimportant' in inverted commas because of course they are important... but not in need of dramatising!

Tom Conoboy said...

yes, spot on Vanessa.

I think people sometimes lose sight of the storytelling part of writing. You have to get the story told, and the over-emphasis on showing all the time leaves the structure too baggy.

It's like the pre-Raphaelite painters. Their paintings are lovely and they show every single detail perfectly. But the human eye doesn't see everything in focus at the same time, so in their struggle to depict everything naturally the pre-Raphaelites make the finished effect unnatural. Too much emphasis in the wrong places.