Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Author Is Not A Camera

John McFetridge

This is the opening of Elmore Leonard’s novel, Tishomingo Blues:

Dennis Lenehan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eight-foot steel ladder. The tank itself was twenty-two feet across and the water in it never more than nine feet deep. Dennis said from that high up you want to come out of your dive to enter the water feet first, your hands at the last moment protecting your privates and your butt squeezed tight, or it was like getting a 40,000-gallon enema.

When he told this to girls who hung out at amausement parks they’d put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn’t it like really dangerous? Dennis would tell them you could break your back if you didn’t kill yourself, but the rush you got was worth it. These summertime girls loved daredevils, even ones twice their age. It kept Dennis going off that perch eighty feet in the air and going out for beers after to tell stories. Once in a while he’d fall in love for the summer, or part of it.

Elmore Leonard is the guy who wrote the famous, “10 Rules” and yet that opening seems to break the biggest writing rule of all: show don’t tell.

That scene is all tell.

Okay, sure, when it’s your thirty-seventh bestseller you get to break the rules, but maybe he’s onto something.

It starts in a way that only a written story can.

Oh sure, a movie could do it in voice over, but it would be lame. Or, a movie could dramatize the information, have a scene with Dennis talking to the girls, dropping a fifty cent piece on the ground, then maybe some cool transition to him on the high board and then a scene that lets us know he’s only fallen in love for, “the summer, or part of it,” driving away form the amusement park by himself. What would that take up, ten minutes? Maybe more. Would any of the other characters form that opening show up again? Not if the rest of the story follows what happens in the book, so there’s probably no way a movie would devote that amount of time to getting across that information.

But more than getting across information what that opening gets across is attitude.

It’s why it’s taken so long for adaptations of Elmore Leonard to finally be good.

People always say he’s a very visual writer but he isn’t really, he’s an inside-the-character’s-head writer, so when you read his books you see what the characters sees through their eyes and more importantly, through their attitude. It was finally with Get Shorty and Out of Sight that filmmakers started to understand how important attitude is to the characters (and in Elmore Leonard it’s usually subtle and movies usually try to make it too flashy).

And just like the movies have a tough time getting across subtle attitude, so do books that are all show and not enough tell. It’s really when people are telling a story that their attitude comes across.

It’s often a (valid) complaint when a book takes a side-trip so the author can expound on some personal pet peeve – the author’s attitude takes us out of the story.

But the character’s attitude brings us right into the story.

It’s one of the main things people like about first person PI stories, why they’re usually smart-ass guys full of attitude.

Books and movies are different and too often these days I find books trying to be movies. It’s natural, I guess, we’re all following the advice to, “show don’t tell,” and how everything should be so “visual” and have plenty of action.

But in following that advice, I think we sell books short.

When the author tries to be the camera and only shows us things happening instead of telling us why they’re happening or how the characters feel about what’s happening I think we’re limiting the storytelling.

Story. Telling.

We hear all the time that the movies are a “visual medium,” and usually the implicationis is that’s somehow superior to any other medium or that it’s something every other medium should be aiming for. But why?

Books aren’t a visual medium. Books should play to their strengths.

That opening of Tishomingo Blues gets across more information – and attitude – about Dennis Lenehan than the entire 90 minute version of the movie probably would.

Of course there are plenty of examples of books that open with dialogue or action – right in the middle of a scene – and they work, too. I’m just saying that maybe we’re following that one rule too much.

Hell, we’re crime writers, we’re rebels, we break rules.

Or, we should.

So, sometimes it may be better to, “Tell, don’t show.”


Paul D Brazill said...

That's a wonderful book and a great opening. so, show and tell both have their place, then.

David Cranmer said...

You can brake rules (and no one will notice) when the plots are compelling and the quality of the writing is tops like Tishomingo Blues.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You got inside my head today with this post. Sometimes a paragraph of narration can do more than a chapter of dialog. I am growing weary of seeing a blank right side on the page. People don't just talk, they think.

Scott D. Parker said...

Like Patti, this post really struck home with me. Perfect post for me today. A book is a book. Let it be a book and not a movie. Yeah!

Eric Beetner said...

Well stated John. I agree.

Ron Earl Phillips said...

I haven't read the book. Shamefully, I haven't read any of Leonard's books. I have read his 10 rules though. This is a good posts. Makes me think about my writing. Makes me think I need to get Elmore Leonard off my shelf and in my hands.

Lamar said...

With all due respect, I have to disagree with you on one point -- the idea that Leonard's opening is "all tell." I don't think so, not in the least. What I get from those few paragraphs is intense, even stylized, imagery. The author isn't telling us how the character feels, or what he things -- he's showing us using imagery that isn't necessarily literal, but strongly effective. The bit about the coin and the skewed perspective of the pool, the diver on the platform, even the older guy flirting with girls too young to be flirting with -- all of these are really effective images. Leonard isn't breaking the rule at all; he simply isn't being perfectly literal about it.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, Lamar, I agree, Leonard isn't being literal about it.

By not describing the action or using dialogue you're right, the imagery is very effective. So, I wonder why he chose not to have any action in the scene or use dialogue. Why doesn't the opening read:

Dennis Lenehan, the high diver, dropped a fifty cent piece on the ground and said, "That's what the tank looks like from the top of that eighty-foot ladder."

And then have the rest of the scene play out in action and dialogue.

I don't know, but I certainly prefer Elmore Leonard's opening ;)

Mike Dennis said...

Getting into the character's head. Yes! And if you're as adept as Leonard, you can do it not by showing, but by telling. Great post, John. Come to think of it, that Leonard opening could just about stand alone as a short story.

Lamar said...

>And then have the rest of the scene play out in action and dialogue.

John, I'm afraid you're being too literal in your interpretation of the phrase "show, don't tell."

In this case, telling would be something along the lines of "Dennis was a high diver. He was sometimes afraid before a dive because of the distance." Dullsville.

If Leonard had dramatized the scene described -- guy talking to a couple girls, telling a story -- it would arguably be a different version of telling, not showing.

By using the imagery he uses, Leonard does exactly what you described -- he gets in the characters head and gives us, the readers, the imagery inside the character's head, thus showing us aspects of the character by illustrating the scene from the character's subjective viewpoint.

Again, he is showing us, not telling us. The scene you quoted is in fact a textbook example of how to show and not tell.

Just my 2 cents, for what it's worth.


John McFetridge said...

Yes, you're right, I'm just exaggerating for effect. I read so many books and stories that are all action and start in the middle of scenes I just wanted to remind people that there's another way to do it.