in defense of telling

Doing the National Novel Writing Month (NANO) tap dance these days, and my head is a well of confusion as I struggle to get the words. Too much fun! A while back I did a post “In Defense of Telling” that resonates especially this month so here it is again, paraphrased somewhat.

“There is nothing wrong with “telling” a story. The problem is not “telling”, it’s poor and lazy writing, or at the very least, inadequate writing. The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a perfect example of how to “tell” a story. He uses first person to frame the tale, but that voice doesn’t appear until late in the story.  The progression of emotion is the story’s plot, from the practical preparation of the body for proper burial to viewing it with sentimental emotion escalating to adoration and adulation. The body is named, dressed, and given a past life. By the time Esteban is returned to the sea he has become alive in the minds of the people of the village. He is no longer merely a dead hunk of “Wednesday meat.”

At the heart of the story lies the transforming power of human sentiment. Dramatizing the practical actions and thoughts of the characters would have bogged down the story in unnecessary details and obliterated its meaning. The story’s narrative shows that “telling” is just as valid and compelling as “showing.” To show a story is to dramatize its telling, thereby illustrating its meaning. Just as showing makes action and emotion vivid and engages the reader, telling too plays an equally important role in the shaping of a story. It’s the art of narration, using language to capture our focus and draw us into what John Gardner called the “fictive dream.” Telling as well as showing brings a story to life in the reader’s mind and sometimes, as Marquez demonstrates, telling, with masterful handling of concrete detail and narrative rhythm, is all that is needed.”