Friday, July 04, 2008

The art of telling (Tell, Don’t Show)

I know, I know, it’s usually “Show, Don’t Tell”. But sometimes you have to tell. Sometimes you have to summarise. Sometimes a well-placed adjective is worth more than a page of boring dialogue.

The art of exposition or sequence or telling (different masters have a different name for it) is a tricky one. Perhaps you just have to be born with the talent, with an inner ear for what makes good text. Or perhaps you can learn it.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to lie on my bed listening to audio books (long story cut short in a form of telling: a nasty fall, a nasty lump on shin, doctor’s orders to elevate the leg or face surgery). One of the books was Ruth Rendell’s “Rottweiler” (about a serial killer), the other “Good Omens” by Pratchett&Gaiman (and if you need to be told it’s about Armageddon, than you haven’t really lived).

I alternated listening to the two. Mostly because “Good Omens” I’ve read several times before, so I could tear myself away from it, and also because the “Rottweiler” was boring.

At first I thought it was because the “Rottweiler” was “tell”, while “Good Omens” was “show”. But no, there is a lot of “tell” in “Good Omens”... about as much as there is “show” in the “Rottweiler”. It’s just that Pratchett&Gaiman know which bits to tell.
It’s as simple as that.

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