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Saturday, June 5, 2010

An Untitled Memoir

On learning that her sister is pregnant, a woman is overcome with envy. That's the gist of this opening scene, and it raises a question: in telling a story, when should we dramatize things, and when is it better to simply summarize or state them?

Here, all the effort that's gone into dramatizing this moment in the narrator's life feels misguided, since a simple, direct statement ("When I learned that my sister was pregnant, at first I was happy for her. It took about ten minutes for my happiness to turn to envy.") could do the trick much more efficiently.

Aside from achieving little beyond what's accomplished by the bald statement, this opening is cluttered and confusing. We slog through a procession of names and relationships, father, siblings, in-laws—a grand total of seven characters (including the narrator) to process within half a page: a headcount sufficient to make readers of Tolstoy dizzy. Indeed, most of the characters mentioned have little if any bearing on the main subject of the scene; nor does it matter, really, whether the news has been posted on Facebook, since the narrator learns it by phone from her father.

Other irrelevancies abound. That the narrator's mother is a schoolteacher is beside the point; and even if it weren't, do we really need to be told, here, that finding substitutes is "a necessary part of [her] job"?

"Show, don't tell," goes the old writing workshop chestnut. But there are times when telling is better and this is one of them.

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