show don’t tell, but how and when?

I have two things to write about this week.

The first thing is that Mindmistress is celebrating its tenth anniversary! What is Mindmistress? It’s a webcomic, and it’s really good. Al Schroeder is the writer and artist, and I talked about his influence on me here. And Al is celebrating the anniversary by talking about all of his influences.

The second topic is this: I’ve always thought that one of the most important things about telling stories is how (and when, and if) you reveal information. It can make all the difference in the reader’s experience.

In newspaper writing (at least this is what I’ve read) the first paragraph should always contain Who, What, Where, When, and Why. This is not usually how you tell a story, no matter whether it’s a novel, a movie, or a tale told around a campfire.

The example I usually use is this: two people are having a conversation. One of them is lying. The conversation – the words and the body language and gestures – can be the same, but the experience for the reader will be completely different if you reveal the fact of the lying before you show the conversation, or during it, or after, or never. And what if the other person on the conversation knows about the lying but doesn’t let on? When do you reveal that? More different scenes out of the same conversation.

This is true also in The Alexandria Quartet, where the narrator learns at the begining of the second book that some of the things he thought in the first book were wrong, so he has to go back over the same events and examine them all again.

In a mystery story, usually you hold back the identity of the killer until the end, but in the TV show Columbo, for example, the murder and the murderer were always shown at the beginning. Whole different story, even if all the rest of the scenes were the same. I could go on, but you get the idea.

This also applies to titles. “Inherent Vice” doesn’t tell you too much about the book. Pynchon’s titles are mostly intriguing rather than informative (the title “V.” tells you pretty much nothing, and the search for its meaning is the plot and the theme of the book). The exception of course is “Mason & Dixon,” but that doesn’t really tell you very much about what kind of book it is.

I think about this also in relation to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” I’ve seen it suggested that the title was changed from the original (“Men Who Hate Women”) as a commercial decision (and certainly the use of “girl” is questionable, especially since Lisbeth’s fight to establish herself as a competent adult is a huge plot point, and the fact that she isn’t – legally – is a weapon used to control and exploit her). But the problem with “Men Who Hate Women” is that it actually tells too much. It’s a headline, not a title for a novel.

I’ve tried to do this also. Several people have commented on “A Sane Woman,” saying that it was intriguing title. I’m glad to hear that, since that was my intention, but you never know in advance if these things are going to work out exactly as planned.

I tried to do that with my current story Stevie One as well, which is a segue (not the most elegant one ever, but what can you do) to the fact that more of the story is posted. We’re near the end of part one now.

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5 Responses to show don’t tell, but how and when?

  1. sonje says:

    I wrote for a college newspaper briefly and was very caught off guard that you had to tell the most dramatic part of the story in the first paragraph!

    About titles: I usually feel pretty good about titles, but I have to say that I can’t seem to get the title perfect for book #1: “On the Chase” is what I’m calling it. I think it’s okay, and it’s probably going to be the title because I can’t think of anything that is better, but it doesn’t feel *perfect.* Sigh.

  2. tmarshmallow says:

    Book titles only seem “right” in retrospect.

    If I were to do up a list of titles and have people vote on their favorites, I would not go with the most popular one, because it wouldn’t be odd enough to be distinctive, but I’d go with #2 or #3.

    Besides, everyone knows nothing matters except the cover art. πŸ™‚

  3. Sonje: sometimes you get lucky, but not always. “U-town” is a purely functional name. I wouldn’t have minded a better title, but I didn’t think of one. Well, “The Hobbit” isn’t a really great title either. πŸ™‚

    Tamara: that’s it. A title takes on value from the book itself. I always think of “The Beatles,” which is actually a really stupid name for a band, but now “The Beatles” means THE BEATLES and nobody ever thinks of the name by itself.

  4. sonje says:

    RE: Book titles only seem β€œright” in retrospect.

    That implies that is true for ALL book titles, and I disagree with that. The titles for books #2, #3, and #4 all felt right immediately. It’s just #1 that itches me. And actually, part of the problem is that it doesn’t fit in with the other three, which are all one word titles. I’d like to find a one word title for book #1… but what word?????

    • Good point. A Sane Woman was always A Sane Woman, and Stevie One clicked at once also. Even now, I think of the name “Stevie One” and it pleases me.

      The fact that On the Chase doesn’t fit with the others is vexing, I’m sure. Maybe that’s part of your editor’s job? πŸ™‚

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