Friday, April 5, 2013

Showing, Not Telling Revisited

A reporter let us all know that Pope Francis I, a Jesuit from South America, collected rubber bands that held his daily newspaper together. At the end of each month, he returned those bands, recycling them.

What might we conclude from that behavior? That he is conscientious? Cares about the world’s resources? We might also conclude that he is meticulous, organized, self-sufficient. Any or all of these inferences would be quite legitimate, and the good writer will let facts and actions shape the character rather than announcing to readers that Pope Francis I is meticulous and adding illustrative evidence. Essay writers do that; they provide the generalization as a topic sentence, then build a paragraph with detailed evidence. Fiction writers select evidence that reveals, suggests, and illustrates without ever declaring the character trait (or topic) for his readers.

That same reporter also told us that the newest Pope canceled his subscription to the local newspaper now that he’s no longer local. This fact was dropped into an amusing anecdote about the newspaper’s circulation manager doubting the veracity of his caller’s identity. Pope Francis had to repeat his name as pope, his name before he became pope, and his present location in Rome before the manager canceled the subscription. This tale might inform us that the Pope is a tolerant man and that the circulation manager is not easily fooled, but the fiction writer will not state those inferences. He will let readers infer them.

So consider some other well-known people and what their actions suggest about their natures:

•    Ellen DeGeneres often tries to alleviate suffering, but shies from accolades. (Inference: Ellen DeGeneres is humble and empathizes with those in need.)
•    Since 1997, Representative Caroline McCarthy (D-NY) has introduced legislation to restrict the killing power of firearms in spite of threats to her personal safety. (Inference: Representative McCarthy is a tireless and courageous public servant.)
•    The night before his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. told his audience that he may not get to the mountain top with them. (Inference: King was prescient, or King recognized how long the struggle would be.)
•    Chris Matthews talks loudly and often over the people he has just invited to answer a question. (Inference: Matthews is impatient and in need of Socialization 101.)

Reading Challenge:

Read Khaled Hosseini’s novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, each set wholly or for a major portion of the novel in Afghanistan.

Writing Challenge:

Draw a line down the length of a piece of paper. In the left column, list the inferences or conclusions you drew about Afghan mores, values, and customs. Match your inferences with specific evidence listed on the right. Note how the author shows you Afghanistan and its culture rather than telling you what it is like.