The Writing of D. F. Lovett

D. F. Lovett's Blog

Enjoy regular thoughts and ideas, in web-log form, from D. F. Lovett. 

The Weather is to be Told, not Shown

So much bad writing results from three simple words: show, don’t tell.

Someone said it once, somewhere, and now it’s destined to be repeated for as long as humans have fiction workshops and writing forums. Here it is, with its very own Google feature snippet, pulled from Wikipedia:

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It works often, sure. But for every time show, don’t tell eliminates needless exposition, there is a superfluous adjective, a hamfisted adverb, a retorted or snorted or scoffed in place of a said.

Using show don’t tell to spice up a passage can be akin to a kracken battle. Every time you eliminate an instance of needless exposition, three new adjectives spring up in its place. Adverbs ride in, weighing down every action with their fluttering editorializing. Synonyms for said consume the dialogue tags.  

The original Bulwer-Lytton sentence is a masterpiece of showing. There isn’t an ounce of telling in it, aside from the first person parenthetical interruption (which is my favorite moment in it, by far.) 

For an example of masterful telling, consider this excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (as translated by Natasha Wimmer)

The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier’s call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times. The word euphemism ten times. The words category, in the singular and the plural, nine times. The word structuralism once (Pelletier). The term American literature three times. The words dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich nineteen times. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothly. Pelletier told Espinoza a joke in German and Espinoza laughed. In fact, they both laughed, wrapped up in the waves or whatever it was that linked their voices and ears across the dark fields and the wind and the snow of the Pyrenees and the rivers and the lonely roads and the separate and interminable suburbs surrounding Paris and Madrid.

If Roberto Bolaño workshopped this piece - if he shared it with anyone, ever, before his death in 2003 and its posthumous publication in Spanish in 2004 - they would have said one of the following things:

  • “Show, don’t tell. Why aren’t you showing us the conversation between the men?”

  • “This was a very long paragraph. Could you give us more physical description about where the men were haivng the phone call? What their bedrooms looked like?

  • "What were they feeling during this conversation?"

  • Or, let’s hope: “This was a masterpiece. Change nothing.”

Every person I’ve ever talked to about 2666 has mentioned this passage. Imagine if it had been repealed and replaced with lines of dialogue, or spiced up with some description of what Espinoza’s apartment looked like.

But we aren’t here to mourn Bolaño. We are here to discuss the weather.

 The weather, as I write this, sadly.

The weather, as I write this, sadly.

Should the weather be told at all?

Of course, there is another problem here with why the original passage does not work. Consider Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing:

Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people.

I think his advice should be taken a step further: weather should only be mentioned in the context of how it affects the characters and narrative. In the case of the Bulwer-Lytton sentence, we have one very long sentence about the weather but we do not know who it affects or how. Even if we learn that in the very next sentence, it’s not about that sentence. It’s about the one the reader is reading in the exact moment.

Anyone can quit reading something at any moment, and I would assume it’s usually in the middle of a sentence. Probably a sentence that isn’t working, where the reader doesn’t know who it’s about, why it matters, why they should care.

Here is Day 4’s Bulwer-Lytton rewrite:

The weather remained the only constant in descriptions of Paul Clifford’s disappearance. The night had been, by all accounts, dark and stormy.

Is this perfect? Of course not. But it may be step closer to the kind of opening sentence that I’d rather be reading and writing. Day 3’s sentence was, I think, better. A stronger sentence, where words sit in the right places and do the right things.

Here is Day 5:

The night of Paul Clifford’s disappearance had been dark and, by all accounts, stormy.

Back to one sentence. All the same information as Day 4. Less (or is it fewer?) fluff.

With 95 days left to get it just right.