Since Tuesdays keep on coming, and since I always want to be writing about topics that readers care about,it’s a huge help to me when readers write in with questions or topics for future Tuesday letters. Send me an email any time.
I mention reader questions because this week’s letter grows out of a great question from a reader named Naomi:
I have recently been attempting to write a story in First-Person (which I don’t typically do), and I have found it more difficult than I had thought it would be. I find myself “Telling” way more than I would do if I was writing in Third-Person, and I can’t seem to get out of that habit/fault.Sometimes it’s hard to know how much the character would really say about herself as the narrator. My narrator is reflecting on her past, so I think she has more room to share how she felt in a certain situation, but I don’t want to get too tell-y.
Ah, yes. The old show-don’t-tell mantra. I don’t want to let anybody off the hook for showing, but it’s very possible that Naomi is beating herself up too much about her first-person narrator over-telling.
A first-person story has a whole level of interest over and above plot, character, setting, etc. You get the story PLUS the narrator’s interpretation of the story. And that bonus layer of interest consists entirely of telling. If you write a story in first-person and you don’t do a lot of telling, you’re probably doing it wrong.
A quick review of showing and telling is probably in order. Think about what a video camera could see if it were in the room with your characters. All that (plus smells, tastes, and textures) is showing. Showing is all about sensory impressions. Telling is everything else: backstory, descriptions of characters’ thoughts and feelings, explanations, interpretations, etc. That may be slightly oversimplified, but only slightly. In-scene sensory impressions are showing, everything else in writing is telling.
The great thing about showing—the reason I and other writing instructors emphasize it—is that showing engages the reader’s judgment in much the same way that the real world engages the reader’s judgment. When you see a dented-up car rolling up at a four-way stop, that is strictly a sensory experience. The world “shows” you that car. But immediately your mind starts filling in blanks, creating backstory, making judgments and interpretations That car has been in multiple accidents. That person is a bad driver. That person probably doesn’t have comprehensive car insurance. Your judgments may or may not be accurate, but you can see what I mean about the real world constantly engaging your judgment. Your eyes and ears bring in sensory impressions (that’s showing), and your mind goes to work interpreting and judging (that’s related to telling).
The right kind of showing lets the reader go through that process for himself. The wrong kind of telling short-circuits the process and tells the reader what to think, supplying judgments and interpretations, instead of providing readers with the raw material out of which to make their own judgments and interpretations.
To see this showing —> judgment process in action, have a look at this mostly-showing description of Guy Dupree, a character in Charles Portis’s hilarious novel, The Dog of the South:
Guy Dupree would have been five-nine, but he stood in a slight crouch that made him look shorter. He wore thick, greasy glasses. A yellowed press badge hung from the lapel of his wrinkled gray suit coat.
When you read that, you’re provided with sensory data (Guy Dupree crouches instead of standing up straight. He is slovenly in appearance. He has thick, greasy glasses.) Then your mind starts filling in the blanks, doesn’t it? Is Dupree is too lazy to have good posture and take his suit to the cleaners and clean his glasses? Does he hate himself? He has a press pass, so he must be a journalist of some kind. His press pass is yellowed. Maybe he’s been a journalist for a long time?
One thing that’s worth noticing about this passage is you can’t tell whether this is a first-person narrator or a third-person narrator. (I realize the pronouns are third-person, but that doesn’t mean this is third-person narration; even a first-person narrator uses third-person pronouns when depicting another character.) When you’re in straight-up showing mode, first-person narration is likely to sound pretty much the same as third-person narration.
Ok, I tricked you. The passage above doesn’t actually come from The Dog of the South. I took a very tell-y, first-person description and transposed it into mostly showing. Here’s the actual description of Guy Dupree, as offered up by his nemesis, the book’s first-person narrator Ray Midge:
As for his height, I would put it at no more than five feet nine inches—he being fully erect, out of his monkey crouch—and yet he brazenly put down five eleven on all forms and applications. His dress was sloppy even by newspaper standards—thousands of wrinkles! It was a studied effect rather than carelessness. I know he had to work at it, because his clothes were of the permanent-press type and you can’t make that stuff wrinkle unless you bake it in a dryer and crumple it up… He wore glasses, the lenses thick and dirty, which distorted the things of the world into unnatural shapes. I myself have never needed glasses. I can read road signs a half-mile away and I can see individual stars and planets down to the seventh magnitude with no optical aids whatever.
Notice here that the narrator Ray Midge isn’t providing you with sensory images, then inviting you to reach your own conclusions regarding Guy Dupree. Sure, he gives you a little bit to look at, but the real action here is the interpretation and judgment that Midge feeds us. Guy Dupree’s height, for instance isn’t just a bit of biometric data, but an occasion to speak of Dupree’s dishonesty on forms and applications. Dupree’s slovenly dress becomes evidence of his deceitful nature and unnatural behavior. And those thick, dirty glasses speak of both Dupree’s distorted worldview and his utter inferiority to Midge, who doesn’t need glasses.
As I said before, the wrong kind of telling shuts down the reader’s judgment. But notice how fully your judgment is engaged in the above passage. In trying to hijack the reader’s judgment of Dupree, the narrator ends up directing more of the reader’s judgment toward himself than he directs toward Dupree. This is a heightened example of how first-person narration works: all that telling creates a story within (or on top of) the story that the narrator is trying to tell.
I have mentioned already the way we constantly judge the sensory impressions that come to us. But we also constantly judge the people who tell us stories. Why is this person telling me this? Why is she telling it this way? What is she leaving out? What does she want from me?
Let’s return to the second part of Naomi’s question above:
Sometimes it’s hard to know how much the character would really say about herself as the narrator. My narrator is reflecting on her past, so I think she has more room to share how she felt in a certain situation, but I don’t want to get too tell-y.
If you think of first-person narration as a matter of eavesdropping on a narrator’s inner monologue, it can be hard to know what that character would really say about herself. For instance, you don’t often rehearse your own backstory to yourself. I was the third of four children; my father wasn’t around much and my mother worked double shifts. Those early years in the single-wide inured me to the insecurity and, ultimately, anger that still mark most of my interactions, even with the people I love.
That’s not the way your inner monologue runs. But it could easily be the way you tell your story to another person. And that’s what a first-person narrator typically is: a person telling a story to another person.
So the question of how much a character would “really” say about herself is largely a question of her rhetorical situation. If you have a clear sense of why your narrator is telling a story (To get something off her chest? To make herself look good? To amaze? To explain? etc.) and to whom she is telling it, you’ll have a much better sense of what she would tell and what she would leave unspoken.
But the extent to which your first-person narrator articulates her inner life and history isn’t even the most important question here. Let’s say you’ve got a first-person narrator whose childhood scars have left her insecure and angry. Maybe she explains all that, and maybe she doesn’t. That’s up to you, really. But whether she does or doesn’t speak directly of her insecurity and anger, it is vital that tell her story and describe other people the way an insecure, angry person would. To put it another way, your narrator’s self-assessment isn’t as important as her assessment of the world around her.
By the time you’ve read the first few pages of The Dog of the South, you know that Ray Midge is bitter, unreasonable, lazy, irresponsible, vindictive, self-absorbed, and utterly lacking in self-awareness. And yet he never uses any of those terms to describe himself. We arrive at this assessment based on the way he tells his story and the way he talks about other people. In the passage I quoted above, Midge only says one thing about himself, and that one thing is obviously a lie. I don’t know what it means to be able to see stars and planets “to the seventh magnitude,” but whatever it is, Midge can’t do it.
The question of how much a first-person narrator would say about herself is a question of what she consciously reveals about herself. What’s more engaging to the reader is the way your narrator unconsciously reveals herself.