… as for the Savage brothers, they were a whole planetary system away from most people in terms of normal, acceptable behavior. The maddest, craziest, most dyed-in-the-wool, lunatic [guys] to ever come out of the Flats, the Savage brothers had thousand-yard stares and tempers so hair-trigger you could fill a notebook the size of the Old Testament with all the things that could set them off. Their father, a sick chucklehead in his own right, had, along with their thin, sainted mother, popped the brothers out one after another, eleven months apart, like they were running a midnight assembly line for loose cannons. The brothers grew up crammed and mangy and irate in a bedroom the size of a Japanese radio beside the el tracks that used to hover over the Flats, blotting out the sun, before they got torn down when Brendan was a kid. The floors in the apartment sloped hard to the east, and the trains hammered past the brothers’ window twenty-one out of twenty-four hours each and every [gosh-darned] day, shaking the piece-of-[crap] three-decker so hard that most times the brothers fell out of bed and woke in the morning piled on top of one another, greeted the morning as irritable as waterfront rats, and pummeled the piss out of one another to clear the pile and start the day.*
*Just so you know: in the interest of keeping the blog PG (hey, I have kids), my policy is to replace words my mother would find inappropriate with their less-offensive counterparts.
I’ve been reading a lot of writing craft books lately, and revising some work, and I’ve noticed that one of the most common pieces of advice that writers get is, “Show, don’t tell.”
Yeah, okay. I get that. You don’t want to tell your readers that your main character George is a vain man. Instead, you want to show George checking himself out in the mirror every time he sees one and brushing his suit off with a lint brush, and let readers draw their own conclusions.
Nobody seems to point out that you can’t show everything. You can’t. Your book will be a million pages long before you get to the turning point of the action. Some readers, like myself, love a long descriptive book, and they will keep reading, as long as the description is interesting. Most readers won’t.
The trick seems to be to decide what’s important and to show that, while telling the bits of background that are important to know but not central to the story, and telling them in a fresh and interesting way. You can even have one character tell us about another character, or about a situation, or a setting, and that’s an interesting way to show us more about the character who’s doing the telling, too. As in the second quote I highlighted from Scott Turow’s wonderful Presumed Innocent, main character Rusty Sabich is telling us about Harukan and his local industry dealing in drugs. Not only do we get a good look at this tangential character, we also get a look at the way things work in the seamier parts of Rusty’s city and a look at the situations Rusty faces in his job as deputy prosecuting attorney – and we see that Rusty is an analytical person whose concept of morality is more complex than “good versus bad.”
The above quote is from Mystic River, from Dennis Lehane’s gripping mystery novel set in a fictionalized section of Boston. The Savage brothers are minor characters in the novel. They’re not central to the plot, so this bit of local color given to us by another minor character only serves as background on the neighborhood and the family loyalties of one of the major characters.
It works as a “telling” segment because it’s gripping, visceral prose. These are not pleasant people Lehane is discussing here, but every time I read it I am ruthlessly delighted at how vivid a picture words can paint.
So: Show, don’t tell. But if you have to tell, make it memorable.