Thursday, March 20, 2008
Rules, Rules, Rules--Show, Don't Tell, part 2
I love to read Dean Koontz. What a wonderful writer.
Guess what--Dean Koontz tells. Quite a lot. But he does it in a form that works.
In my early days as a novelist I occasionally fell into the trap of trying to write like Koontz. I didn't do it consciously. But Koontz's voice would be running through my head as I created a scene. And--voila. Some imitation would come out on the page. Interestingly, if taken all by itself--that is, out of the context of my story--it wasn't bad writing. But in context it didn't work at all. The passages just sounded stilted, like overwritten telling.
Why? (Other than the fact that I'll never write as well as Dean Koontz.)
It took me some time to realize the answer. I write in close third person--the most intimate form of third. In this close third person, I always try to describe things as the character would describe them. I want the character's voice to come through, not my own as author.
Koontz doesn't always write like this. Often his third person is not close third, but more removed. We're still in the character's head, but in removed third person the narrative is more formal, allowing the author's voice to come through in description. In this removed third, a passage that should be "shown" in close third can now be written more in the form of "telling."
When, in my close third person, I wrote a passage a la Koontz, the result was a pulling back of intimacy with my character. Her voice would change, suddenly more distant and formal. In that context, the passage would stick out like a sore thumb.
Consider this paragraph describing a "bad guy" in Koontz's Dragon Tears:
Of all the extraordinary things about the ratman, his eyes were the most disturbing ... The eyes made the ratman's body seem like merely a disguise, a rubber suit, as if something unspeakable peered out of a costume at a world on which it had not been born but which it coveted.
The last sentence is certainly descriptive. Gives us the sense that this bad guy may not even be quite human. This ratman is seen here through the eyes of the POV character, a homeless man. But Koontz is not employing the close form of third person. He's using removed third. In close third, this character's voice wouldn't use such a formal-sounding phrase as ... a world on which it had not been born but which it coveted. But because the whole book is written in removed third, such "telling" passages work.
In Dark Pursuit, my novel coming out in November, one of the main characters is Darell Brooke, a suspense writer. A few chapters in Dark Pursuit are from Darell's own suspense novel that he's desperately trying to write. I wanted Darrel Brooke's writing to be very different from my own. In my own writing for the character of Darrel--and every other POV character in the story--I used the close third person I usually employ. But for Darrel's writing, I pulled back into a removed third. (I also switched to present tense.) As soon as I did this, I found myself using more "telling." It's what comes naturally in removed third. Here's a passage in the smugly arrogant bad guy's POV from Darrel Brooke's novel. (In this passage the POV is so removed as to sound close to ominiscient.)
Deep in the night Leland Hugh walks the town.
Darkness is his ally.
In movies and in books the dark has been unworthily portrayed. Unpredictable, ferocious, protector of evil and ugliness. The hour of vampires and witches and goblins. Hider of sins.
The velvet blackness drapes soft on the back of Hugh’s neck.
This night the pavement sheens from recent rain. Lamp post light glides across asphalt as he passes, ghost galleons in a shallow sea.
Although the air is warm Hugh detects a whisper of coming autumn.
He traverses the central downtown street, nerves thrumming to the music of its silence. Twelve hours ago shoppers and lunchers filled these blocks, fiercely intent on their useless errands and gossip of the absurd. Their absence fills Hugh with a quiet joy. He entertains the thought of himself as sole survivor of the town, an unbridled and brilliant founder of new beginnings.
The world according to Leland Hugh.
He reaches an intersection and swerves diagonally to the opposite curb.
His footsteps strike without noise. This is an art he has perfected. Fear may be unleashed through the shriek of power, but nothing is as terrifying as soundless dread.
If I stuck this kind of "telling" description in the middle of one of Darrel's POV scenes, it would sound out of place. Darrel himself, in close third person, sounds like this:
Three times they repeated the process. Pills, always pills, day and night. He didn’t even know what he took anymore. Most of them were vitamins and herbs. Did no good at all, except to keep snake oil salesmen in business. As for the inventor of the one that was supposed to make him think more clearly—Darell could imagine a million torturous ways to kill the shyster off in his next book.
If he ever had a next book.
Bottom line: there is a form of writing in which "telling" works on a regular basis. It depends on the kind of third person you use. If you're using removed third, or the most distant POV of all--omniscient--telling can sound right. But most likely, you're automatically using close third because that's the form we're used to reading these days. If that's the case, you shouldn't look at authors like Koontz and say, "He's telling, so why can't I?" That's like packing a few apples in a crate of oranges and wondering why the colors don't match.