This is the third in a series of craft tips about Show, not Tell. As you know (if you’ve studied the craft of writing), this is a popular saying among writing instructors. It means that writers should avoid long passages of narrative summary (descriptions and observations narrated in the authorial voice) and cut to the action. This piece of advice is not only hard to get right, it is also a huge problem for those writers who have a natural bent for narrative summary.
Today, I thought I would share three examples of Tells by that wonderful author
Jane Austen, the mistress of narrative summary. Telling the reader what to think is generally regarded as a no-no. Readers object to it, and it can lead to lazy writing. So how would you rate the following, all taken from Miss Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?
Miss Bennet’s pleasing manners grew on the goodwill of Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and though the mother was found to be intolerable, and the younger sisters not worth speaking to, a wish of being better acquainted with them was expressed towards the two eldest.
Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book as in reading her own, and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way!”
Elizabeth wrote the next morning to their mother, to beg that the carriage might be sent for them in the course of the day. But Mrs. Bennet, who had calculated on her daughters remaining at Netherfield till the following Tuesday, which would exactly finish Jane’s week, could not bring herself to receive them with pleasure before.
Notice that all of these passages are what I refer to as “Tells”, where the reader is told what to think, so the question becomes, did you mind being told what to think?
I think most readers find these passages charming and funny, and don’t mind at all. So how does Miss Austen get away with it?
First of all, notice that all these passages are written in a distinctive voice, they are not bland and boring bits of prose, they do not sound like something taken from a newspaper or report. What makes them so wonderful is that they have a spark to them, an attitude, a personality. This is the main reason, I believe, why agents are so eager to find voice when they look at manuscripts. Because they know that an author can get away with more tells if the writing is as glorious as this.
Secondly, notice how closely observed these observations are. They are not cliches, they are specific and concrete and they show off the personality of these characters.
As in all things to do with writerly craft, the question is, how much can you get away with before the reader notices or minds? I submit that any writer who does tells as well as Jane Austen does can get away with murder.
Image: The “Rice Portrait” of Jane Austen, done by Ozias Humphry R. A. in 1788, when Jane was 13 years old.