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Show don't Tell -Your opinions on 2013 Edgar First Book Nominees
Three Borzoi
Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 12:07 PM
Joined: 4/4/2013
Posts: 18

The following exerpts are for instructional purposes and are covered by the U.U. Fair Use laws.

Are the following Show? Or are they Tell?

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like that didn’t happen.
-The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

Red, white and you, that’s what Aaron and I called our third store. It was pretentious, but at the end of the '80 pretentious was high art, ranking right up there with big hair bands and junk bonds. The '80s, Christ! The decade when video killed the radio star and AIDS killed everybody else. Pretentious worked well on the North Shore of Long Island, especially in Old Brookville, where even the station cars were chauffeured.
-Soul Patch, Reed Farrel Coleman, three-time winner of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year and twice nominated for the Edgar® Award.

Show vs. Tell is, in my amateur opinion, rather more complicated than is often presented. One can argue that established writers get to violate the "rules", but we amateurs don't. The following are the first few lines of the first chapter (skipping prologues) of all six 2013 Edgar® nominees for Best First Novel. Any opinions as to which begin with showing and which with telling? Also, which are locked into the head of the author or protag, and which are fully immersing the reader in the scene independent of the narrator and his/her head?

1. The Map of Lost Memories, Kim Fay
At the far end of the apartment, a row of shutters opened onto a balcony overlooking the swayback roofs of Shanghai. Beyond the low buildings and down a crooked street, the Whangpoo River shushed against the wharves. A heavy, velvet humidity pressed down on this dark belt of water, a perpetual tension that caused a wilted draft, lifting fumes of jasmine and sewage, coal and rotting river weed, into the thick night air.

2. Don't Ever Get Old, Daniel Friedman
In retrospect, it would have been better if my wife had let me stay home to see Meet the Press instead of making me schlep across town to watch Jim Wallace die.
   I’d known Jim since back when I was in the service, but I didn’t consider him a friend. So when Rose interrupted my programs to tell me she’d just got a call from the hospital and that Wallace was in intensive care and asking for me, I said I’d have plenty of time to see him at his funeral.

3. Mr. Chirchill's Secretary, Susan Elia Macneal
“I would say to the House, as I’ve said to those who have joined this Government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and sigffering,” intoned Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill to the House of Commons and the British nation in his first speech as the new Prime Minister.
   There must have been complete silence in the House, although there was a burst of static over the airwaves as Maggie leaned forward to listen to the BBC on the wireless. She and Paige sat at the kitchen table and clasped hands, listening to the address. Charlotte, better known as Chuck, entered the kitchen quietly and leaned against the door frame.

4. The Expats, Chris Pavone
   Kate is staring through a plate-glass window filled with pillows and tablecloths and curtains, all in taupes and chocolates and moss greens, a palette that replaced the pastels of last week. The season changed, just like that.
   She turns from the window, to this woman standing beside her on the narrow sliver of sidewalk in the rue Jacob. Who is this woman?
   “Oh my God, Kate? Is that you?” The voice is familiar. But the voice is not enough.
   Kate has forgotten what exactly she is halfheartedly looking for. It’s something fabric. Curtains for the guest bath? Something frivolous.

5. The 500, Matthew Quirk
I was late. I checked myself out in one of the giant gilt mirrors they had hanging everywhere. There were dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep and a fresh patch of carpet burn on my forehead. Otherwise I looked like every other upwardly mobile grade-grubber streaming through Langdell Hall.
   The seminar was called Politics and Strategy. I ducked inside. It was application only-sixteen spots-and had the reputation of being a launching pad for future leaders in finance, diplomacy, military, and government. Every year Harvard tapped a few mid- to late-career heavies from DC and New York and brought them up to lead the seminar. The class was essentially a chance for the wannabe big-deal professional students-and there was no shortage of them around campus-to show off their “big think” skills, hoping establishment dons would tap them and start them off on glittering careers. I looked around the table: hotshots from the law school, econ, philosophy, even a couple MD/ PhDs. Ego poured through the room like central air.

6. Black Fridays, Michael Sears
I was the first alumnus from my MBA class to make managing director. I was also the first, as far as I know, to go to prison.
They make you skip breakfast the day they release you. It’s not the final indignity, and far from the worst, but it’s such a small thing, so petty, so unnecessary, that it just hammers home one last time, as though you needed another reminder, that in prison you are nothing. Nothing.
Michael R Hagan
Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 3:44 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

You're not wrong:
No telling, instant hooks, 3rd part ltd, set formulas.... just for us newbs it seems. All animals are equal.... some are more...
Same as a new book has to be max 100k word-count, but a really complex, beautiful story can require more.
Can't get a book out if it isn't uniquely great, can't be uniquely great if it must fit the same formula/length as all the others.
Ah, what-ya-gonna do?

Come the revolution brother...

Best of luck,
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 4:20 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Contrary to popular belief, art is a mysterious, irrational process of which none of us is in total control. That said, is it not wisest to know all the rules before we break them?

Never forget: our job as writers is to make reading fun and exciting. Period.

Now, as noobs, we may be writing something which because of our lack of experience and know-how, we are totally unaware is boring to actually read. A lot of "the rules" we hear about aren't really rules at all, so much as they are diagnostic tools for why your MS may well be sucking at the moment. So I try to think of the rules as health tips for my WIP rather than crimes against literature.  

So, be bold AND never stop studying your craft.


Three Borzoi
Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 4:40 PM
Joined: 4/4/2013
Posts: 18

Of the 6 First timers, #1 begins with description.  A cityscape. And even a bit of a weather report.
#2, 5, & 6 are 1st person and #3 & #4 are 3rd person.
#3 & #4 are certainly showing.
What about #2, #5, and #6?? Show or tell? And why do you say what you do?
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 6:50 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

I'd say 2, 5 and 6 fall into the category of traditional storytelling. They're each highly ideosyncratic versions of "Once upon a time..."

First person narration breaks a lot of the standard "rules" and creates some of its own. It is particularly difficult and often ill-advised to insist on "showing" in first person because in first person the main thing you are *showing,* and showing for every second of the narrative's length, is the mind and attitudes of the MC. The trouble with "showing" in that context is that it necessarily places the MC in a secondary position, so the more you push showing, the more passive your MC ends up being. 

Third person is a landscape painting. First person is a therapy session. 

So, one rule of 1st person is that the mind of the MC needs to be particularly interesting. A lot of the conflict in the narrative will necessarily be internal, so your MC will prolly need to be pretty complex, ambivalent--in a word, conflicted.

In a lot of ways, 1st person is more demanding than 3rd, so the neophyte is admonished to steer clear. In that sense, "show don't tell" is a sneaky way of saying, "stick to 3rd person, it's safer."


Jay Greenstein
Posted: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 1:02 AM

The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

The opening is all telling. The rest isn’t, though there’s a lot of exposition. Neither are uncommon. I would bet that the mention, in her query, that she was a rape victim, got her enough of a read to get to the more dynamic section of the novel.

 • Soul Patch, Reed Farrel Coleman

Like so many mysteries it begins with the crime as a prologue, presented in the form of a report. And yes, the main story begins with a patch of info-dump, but after that “establishing shot,” it drops into M/R units.

• One can argue that established writers get to violate the "rules", but we amateurs don't.

That’s true, but Sebold wasn’t established, and in the two cases above, what you’re presenting is only a small section of the novel and doesn’t represent the writing style.

As for the Edgar award, since they’re specifically for mysteries, you can expect to find openings that are telling. It’s a genre specific thing.

You’re also not factoring in the different styles for stories presented primarily in exposition. They still make use of motivation/response, but often do that through an implied conversation between reader and writer. What the writer says raises a question in the reader’s mind and the writer then addresses that, giving a feeling of interactive conversation.

My favorite example of that is The Last Unicorn. You can read the opening on Amazon, though I have an example of what I mean here, in the section on exposition: http://jaygreenstein.wordpress.com/category/the-craft-of-writing/page/2


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