Friday, May 29, 2009

With Apologies to Screenwriters

This morning I read a book about a boy who gives his sister a "makeover" with permanent markers and chewing gum. The story alternates between the boy's mother scolding him, and other people the boy knows who've made mistakes, too. It's like a series of cinematic jump cuts, and the only way you know which scene you're in is a subtle background difference. It was really confusing.

This cinematic element reminds me of Richard Russo's article "In Defense of Omniscience" from Bringing the Devil to His Knees, which I recently reread. Part of Russo's argument against first-person narration also advises against the old "show don't tell" rule. He writes:

"The trick is to know when to tell, when to show. It should be remembered that we're storytellers, not story showers, and fiction writing is not film. Novels are not pre-screenplays. In a screenplay everything much be shown. There's no such law in fiction. And, often, telling the reader things is a test of what the writer actually knows, and it can also reveal what he or she doesn't know."

Smart words. Except Russo's last book was first-person present. Although his forthcoming book is third-person. Maybe it's similar to the best counter I've heard to the "show don't tell" rule: you show when you need to show, and you show when you need to tell. For first-person versus omniscient: You use first-person when that character needs to tell their story, and you use third-person when that character isn't capable of telling their own story.

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