In which we despair: show and tell is alive and well

I have a theory about best-selling authors. Once they have finally made their breakthroughs, they tend to get lazy.

I have noticed that subsequent novels often become longer – just eyeball your collection of Harry Potters on the bookshelf and observe the chronological increase in spine widths, like a literary Fibonacci sequence. They also tend to contain a fair number of editorial no-no’s (such as clichés) that are the bread and butter of every ‘How to write’ self-help book their authors used to swear by (see what I did there?). In fact, the same sort of lapses that would have landed their manuscripts on the slush pile had they not already made a name for themselves.

Case in point. I’m right in the middle of A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer, author of the New York Times best-seller City of Light. Published in 2010, her follow-up, A Fierce Radiance, is a great example of the continuing rise of the lab lit genre. Unfolding as the United States is drawn into the Second World War, the story follows the development of penicillin from promising but frustrating mouldy precursor to the mass-marketed miracle cure it eventually became. It is also a romance, a spy story and a murder mystery.

And the novel is definitely bona fide lab lit, with labs, colorful fungi growing in jam jars, experiments and quirky, non-stereotyped scientists in their white coats (including one who’s wearing a cocktail gown underneath because she’s come back to her bench after midnight straight from a party – sound familiar, anyone?) And as the scientists are observed mostly from the perspective of a photographer from Life magazine, called in to document the developments, it offers an interesting and creative insight into how science looks to a complete outsider.

There is a but, of course. I’m halfway through and mourning how the intriguing plot, well-crafted prose, beautiful descriptions and light, skillful touch are so frequently marred by schoolgirl errors. Lips are pursed. People are ‘clocked’, several times in as many chapters. Scenes begin with too many greetings, introductions and how-are-you’s, chatter that’s normally trimmed off as unnecessary padding. I can live with that. But what is starting to jar me right out of my suspended disbelief is the growing evidence that author hasn’t the slightest faith in her readers’ powers of comprehension.

Show not tell is a fundamental concept that every beginning writer is taught. Do not tell the reader something – show them. Even worse is to show and tell – having patronized the reader, the author then hammers them over the head with the obvious. Here’s a (made-up) example:

“I hate you!” Henry yelled, banging his fist angrily against the wall.

In this sentence, someone is yelling, and banging his fist: the anger is clearly shown. In fact, it didn’t even need to be shown three times (exclamation mark; yelling; the fist-banging). I would use only one of the elements.

So here’s how Belfer ruins an otherwise perfect scene, which the reader can clearly see and hear, a scene that would have brought the words to life were it not for the subsequent howlers. The photographer, Claire, is ringing the busy Life magazine office to check something alarming out.

She called collect. Frieda accepted the charges.

“Hi, Claire, everything okay? Sure you can borrow it, just bring it back. No, he needs it now.” From the clipped tone of her voice, from her simultaneous conversations, Claire knew Frieda was distracted, others standing at her desk. Frieda saw nothing amiss in Claire’s call, a photographer checking in, standard procedure.

This is reader-bludgeoning, plain and simple. The dialogue itself is perfect – we’ve all experienced phrases like that at the other end of the line, and it’s difficult to write dialogue that sounds this natural. But there my praise ends. Frieda is obviously distracted, obviously addressing the last two phrases to a person or persons nearby. What’s more, it’s clear from the very fact that she’s doing her job normally that she is not suspicious of the motivations behind Claire’s call. To tell us all this is not only unnecessary, but painful. Especially as the violations accumulate, chapter after chapter, until you want to throw the book across the room.

I’m going to finish the novel, because I’m interested in the plot and I do so love seeing science take center stage in fiction. Still, it’s a shame that the book wasn’t taken in hand by a decent editor before it was let loose into the world.

And speaking of which, it’s too soon to go public with the details, but it looks as if I may very well have secured a London agent for my third novel – provided I commit to some strenuous editing, and the result hangs together. After a productive meeting in a Hampstead tea room last night, I have agreed to take on the challenge of condensing the manuscript by almost forty percent. It’s a daunting proposition, but strangely, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

Aside from show not tell, there is nothing truer in fiction than less is more.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in LabLit, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to In which we despair: show and tell is alive and well

  1. rpg says:

    Less is always more, except in Linux where it’s not even a symlink. /geek

    wearing a cocktail gown underneath because she’s come back to her bench after midnight straight from a party – sound familiar, anyone?

    Oh yes. Did that all the time. Got the legs for it, see?

  2. Colin G. Finaly says:

    Lauren Belfer’s novel, ‘A Fierce Radiance’, is on my must read list of books . It seems that her American hero discovers something akin to Alexander Fleming’s penicillin.

    In her next book, a Scottish hero will doubtless synthesize peanut butter.

  3. Colin, the American scientists are not portrayed discovering penicillin – credit is given to the Brits. The novel instead tracks the subsequent development of the drug to something usable – which seems to be fairly accurate historically. The Rockefeller did make seminal contributions and the first person to be (permanently) cured was treated in an American hospital. Vannevar Bush’s drive to militarize the development as a war effort was crucial.

  4. Blah. I completely agree. I spend so much of my time editing down scientific documents, trimming unnecessary words and re-phrasing things, that I tend to have an allergic reaction when I see too much extra guff in fiction.

    You’d never know this from reading my blog posts (or, er, comments) mind you.

  5. GMP says:

    I have to say I truly loved this post, and I am surprised by how much. I think it spoke to the nerd in me, winning me over with a keen dissection of writing redundancies. Seriously, I am a sucker for linguistics, grammar, and generally looking into the mechanics of creative writing.

  6. cromercrox says:

    Am agog to learn more of your Brief Encounter in said Hampstead Tea Room.

    My own pet hate is gratuitous use of adverbs, he wrote, archly.

  7. GMP – sorry for the delay in moderation. Long story, not interesting enough to recount here! I think editing is a fundamentally geeky obsession. Almost a curse, sometimes.

    Crox – when are you in London next?

  8. Brian Clegg says:

    I think with the bestselling authors it’s not so much that they get lazy, so the books get longer, but rather the editor is terrified of upsetting them, sending them to another publisher, so they let through stuff that they would have hacked to pieces in the early book(s).

  9. cromercrox says:

    Jenny – Monday, 1st December. Lunch?

    Brian – I once received an article by Stephen Jay Gould, doyen of popular science writers at the time. I had commissioned the article, and unlike most articles it came in bang on the deadline, and to the word limit. Professor Gould is now the Late Professor Gould, but back then he was always on time. You could tell that the chap knew how to write. However, the article was accompanied by a missive saying words to the effect that if I edited a single sentence, a single word, I’d be walking on his grave. I clove that particular gordian knot by passing it to someone else to edit.

Comments are closed.