Don't Tell and Don't Just Show

For the last month or so, writing Tardi Mack, the point-of-view character in Monster-Moored, my project-on-the-go, I’ve been worrying that I was doing more telling again. An easy habit to fall into. I’ve been feeling increasingly distanced from him, as though he was a marionette dancing on the ends of his strings.

Though a character being read has a certain autonomy, a character being written must be even more fully in the control of his or her creator than the much-quoted “Show, Don’t tell.” advice suggests. Yet all the best stories allow me, as reader, to be the character I identify with.

This is what I aspire to as a writer – the construction of characters readers can inhabit. Not telling about character. Not showing character. But allowing the reader to be the character.

An avatar generally expects to act independently within the confines of its game world, where a reader inhabiting a character in a novel has not just the world but also the plot laid out in front of them.

Hence I’ve been reading Elmore Leonard, a master of the limited third person point of view, studying how he does it. In Mr Paradise, published in 2004, Leonard introduces a viewpoint character in the first sentence of a scene, often by name. “ Ten to eleven Delsa walked in the squad room taking off his duffle coat, the kind with the hood and wooden toggles, the turtleneck and blazer a deep navy blue.” (page 39)

Story is moved along by dialogue, and (silent) viewpoint character actions, thoughts and observations, usually identified clearly at their beginning as to who is doing what.

Most sentences are simple subject-verb constructions, “Kelly caught it …” “Montez brought change …” “Mr Paradiso said,” (page 37) With one or more similar clauses and phrases to expand meaning. “Kelly watched him come through the dining room still wearing his grey suit, his eyebrows raised to his boss, not speaking, but this way asking what the man wanted, sitting there on his throne with a vodka on the rocks.” (page 37) Resulting in Leonard’s trademark punchy rhythm.

Leonard frequently uses the “Chloe said, …” structure to begin a section of dialogue, the reason I finally discovered its secret. For example when Chloe said, “I’ve usually had a good time …” she is an as yet unknown person in a scene with a number of other likewise unknown people. For a proper understanding of the relevance of her communication, readers need to know her identity before reading what she says.

Cool. I’ll be able to use that construction properly now.

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