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9.22.2008

Showing vs. Telling

It's funny, but I pay more and more attention to the ratio of dialogue to exposition in fiction as I navigate the submissions process. I've had some editors that I really admire offer enlightening advice on the topic. The bulk of the advice has been to go heavier on the dialogue.

I thought it was really interesting to look at this post. The Gremlin Editor over at Electric Spec makes some great points. I won't quibble with most of them. But that point number four gives me pause:

  • If there's no dialogue on the first page of the story, you better have a good reason.

I went through the literature anthology I use at the college. I selected the tales myself, and I'm pretty fond of them. Here's the ratio:

  • 3/17 include dialogue in the first ten paragraphs. Many don't have any at all (of course, they are written in the first person by the likes of Poe and Carver--confessional in nature)

I'm amazed at how little dialogue there is in Leonard's Swag. It's certainly one of the more exposition-heavy books that I've read by the noir master, and one of the slowest builds in his bibliography.

Now, I'm not saying that the Gremlin's advice above is off the mark. I spent some time as an editor at the Clackamas Literary Review in Oregon and I can sympathize. There comes a time, usually late at night and after reading nine male ennui stories in a row, when you really want the characters to speak to one another.

But don't let that old adage get in the way of your own creative process. I think sometimes a writer can put too much stock in that advice--to the detriment of the tale.

No, I'd say get the rough draft down and look at the characters' interactions as you re-write (point three is the best advice in the Gremlin's post, in my humble view). If they are dead on the page, the story likely is too. I find that I try to condense my "telling" and hone my "showing" through the revision process.

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