Thursday, January 6, 2011

In Defense of...Good Telling

I have to say, the idea for this blog topic came about the hard way -- after receiving a critique of my work that made me wince and say, "ouch." You know, the kind of critique where, in the perspective of the critiquer, she's found numerous instances of breaking a writing "rule."

This rule in question is the grand daddy of them all: Show, don't Tell.

When receiving a critique that seems to reveal an overarching problem, I have a mixed response. I think we all do when we receive criticism. We weigh the comments against our personal confidence in what we're trying to do, while at the same time, we try to objectively judge the validity and the source of the opinion. For instance, is it a common thread problem seen amongst several critiquers or the personal taste -- or, distaste, as the case may be, of an individual? Good advice says to downplay the one discordant voice. But even one voice, especially if it echoes your own self-doubt, is tricky to ignore. And when it nags at me long enough, my gut reaction is to look for a defense.

The defense is for myself, the harshest critic of all. I must evaluate for myself if there were or still are good reasons why I decided to use the words I chose in the way that I did. And in deciding if or what I might change, I also look for and often find reassurance in breaking a rule by finding examples of when others have done so.

I looked long and hard, but I believe I've found it -- an article that gives some credit and balance to "telling" in the maxim "show vs. tell." I highly recommend reading the article, When to Tell Instead of Show. In this article, Mary at Kidlit.com thoughtfully explains a pattern of Good Telling using examples from Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein's speech, "A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter." Excellent advice and some good insight in the many comments too!

I needed this after a critique of too much "telling." Although it certainly doesn't make all my "telling" instances okay, it does help give a common sense balance to show vs. tell to evaluate my choices.

Another part of my "defense" I've been considering is also the First Person POV of the critiqued chapter. Right or wrong, First Person tends to seduce the writer to tell. It's such a confessional style that it almost seems natural to tell the reader with simple directness how the character feels and what she sees. But perhaps this is in the "old" style of Jane Eyre, who would sometimes even directly address the reader. There is an honesty in this telling I adore, such as in this passage which gives a clear description of Mr. Rochester and Jane's devotion:

And was Mr. Rochester now ugly in my eyes? No, reader: gratitude and many associations, all pleasurable and genial, made his face the object I best liked to see; his presence in a room was more cheering than the brightest fire.

Bronte's paragraphs are also much longer than today's modern reader is used to reading. This same paragraph continues:

Yet I had not forgotten his faults; indeed, I could not, for he brought them frequently before me. He was proud, sardonic, harsh to inferiority of every description; in my secret soul I knew that his great kindness to me was balanced by unjust severity to many others. He was moody too; unaccountably so; I more than once, when sent for to read to him, found him sitting in his library alone, with his head bent on folded arms; and when he looked up, a morose, almost malignant, scowl blackened his features. But I believed that his moodiness, his harshness, and his former faults of morality (I say former, for now he seemed corrected of them) had their source in some cruel twist of fate. I believed he was naturally a man of better tendencies, higher principles, and purer taste than such circumstances had developed, education instilled, or destiny encouraged. I thought there were excellent materials in him; though for the present they hung together somewhat spoiled and tangled. I cannot deny I grieved for his grief, whatever that was, and would have given much to assuage it.

This is the Truth According to Jane and she is sharing her deepest thoughts. Do we like her better for it? Do we pity her? I confess, I am jealous of Charlotte Bronte and the Good Telling of her time.

However, while First Person POV is not THE most popular choice to the modern publisher and reader, it is still a strong second. In any case, whether for Third or First Person, I think there are many instances of Good Telling to be found.

For my own modern story, my defense in "telling" is not yet complete. I may yet decide the First Person POV should be changed to Third Person POV, as I seem to be more aware of the need to show and not tell in Third. Or, I may may decide to move the First Person sections to later sections of the book if Third Person makes a "showier" and more exciting beginning. There are many options and considerations I'll have to make with a guarded sense of protectiveness when considering outside input.

Still, it's hard to shake the comments of a critique and the negative ones do tend to stick. Is my heroine annoying in the First Person? Apparently so if I went by the comment, "If I were her husband, I'd dump her in the woods and drive off." Ouch.

But perhaps this critiquer would be also be annoyed with Jane Eyre. Who knows? Some people cannot enjoy First Person POV, while others appreciate it more. I also have other crits with "loved it" and a "highly believable heroine" so I'm not totally crushed! And something to consider is part of the believability just might be in the telling.

I'm curious. Do you think there is more license to tell in First Person or is it only a natural tendency that should be controlled and First Person POV follows the same "rules" of show vs. tell as Third Person? And, have you found you enjoy Good Telling?

4 comments:

  1. First off, I'm sorry you got a critique that made you say "ouch". From the comment above, I would say the critiquer was unnecessarily harsh. I would say it's good to review the critique, but wait before making any changes until you've had a chance to decide whether it works for your story. It's possible it's a subjective opinion after all.

    I'm intrigued about whether 1st POV has more telling in it. I'm trying to think about the things I've written in 1st, and I'm not sure it does have more telling, but I can definitely see where it could. Maybe it's not as obvious because it has that sense of intimacy and immediacy because of the 1st person narration.

    And I definitely enjoy good telling--whatever makes me enthralled with the story is what I want to read! I don't care WHAT the rulebook says!

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  2. Thanks, Donna! Yes, the crit did seem harsh. I am definitely going to have wait before making any changes. Oddly, the crit ends with "I think you did first person very well and I like you're writing style." You'd almost think she enjoyed it if it weren't for the telling words like thought/felt/heard/saw to nix, the wandering body parts, an exclamation point, the confusing heroine AND the fact nothing happens. LOL Huh. Not bad to have all that and still be liked, don't you think?

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  3. Melissa, I always think it's best to wait before making changes. It takes a little bit of time to cycle through that "but they don't love me!" feeling, and then "mmm, I suppose I could try such-and-such", to the "Wow! I just had the best idea of how to fix this!" LOL

    I say write the book the way you want to, and then look at it afterwards to see if you agree with the remarks. It's possible it's one subjective opinion--although if you do 1st POV very well, that's awesome. Not everyone can do that!

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  4. You're exactly right, Donna. I need to just stick with the schedule and get this baby written all the way through -- then go back and decide what's next. Thanks a bunch!

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