Thursday, December 4, 2014

Showing AND Telling in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is one of five novels nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014. While it is not the winner, it is a winning novel to read and from which to learn. I have written about the poetic language of the novel earlier. Today, I will use Doerr’s novel to illustrate the difference between showing and telling, a difference that continues to puzzle many would-be writers.

From “Key Pound” (Doerr, Anthony. “Key Pound.” All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. Kindle ed. New York: Scribner, 2014. 323-24. Print.)

“At home, in the evenings, her father stows their shoes in the same cubby, hangs their coats on the same hooks. Marie-Laure crosses six evenly spaced friction strips on the kitchen tiles to reach the table; she follows a strand of twine he has threaded from the table to the toilet. He serves dinner on a round plate and describes the locations of different foods by the hands of a clock. Potatoes at six o’clock, ma chérie. Mushrooms at three. Then he lights a cigarette and goes to work on his miniatures at a workbench in the corner of the kitchen. He is building a scale model of their entire neighborhood, the tall-windowed houses, the rain gutters, the laverie and boulangerie and the little place at the end of the street with its four benches and ten trees. On warm nights Marie-Laure opens her bedroom window and listens to the evening as it settles over the balconies and gables and chimneys, languid and peaceful, until the real neighborhood and the miniature one get mixed up in her mind.”

Doerr’s narrator specifies the actions that Marie-Laure’s father takes to help her navigate her surroundings. The narrator shows us what it is to be blind and how we might learn to see without sight.

But what is Marie-Laure’s experience as a young blind girl? For this, the narrator tells the reader.
Sunlight sets the building aglow.
Photo by Al Griffin

From “Take Us Home” (Doerr, Anthony. “Take Us Home.” All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. Kindle ed. New York: Scribner, 2014. 370-71. Print.)

“For a long time, . . . his [Marie-Laure’s father] model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.”

The narrator tells us that Marie-Laure experiences the world through other senses. She recognizes places, seasons, and times of day by their scents and sounds. Both passages are specific, detailed and vivid. Neither one lacks for concrete details. The first passage full of actions demonstrates how blind Marie-Laure learns to see in the apartment she shares with her father, and we readers infer how simultaneously challenging and comforting her lessons may have been. The second passage is reportorial as the narrator tells us how Marie-Laure experiences her neighborhood; readers need not infer.

Reading Challenge:

Read this beautiful novel: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Writing Challenge:


Show a person in action, then tell us how that person thinks and feels about the action.