Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tell, Don't Show

You know the old chestnut: "Show, don't tell." It's what our English teachers from eighth grade onward have always told us, and what I tell my students, too, when they fail to render through drama material that ought to be dramatized.

But there are times, too, when the opposite needs to be said, when fleshing things out in the form of action and dialogue lends little or nothing to a moment, and may even detract from it; when ideas or information are best conveyed expediently, through summary.

This first page offers such a moment. While driving somewhere, John Baran, the protagonist, gets a call on his cellphone, one that "send[s] a chill through him." Having switched to "hands-free mode," he learns from his CEO's secretary that a man named David has suffered a massive stroke that has left him completely paralyzed in Philadelphia Hospital. Who this David is we don't yet know, but we learn that he and John met each other while being trained "as members of the Army's Special Operations Command" at Fort Benning.

The phone conversation conveys information, but in the absence of character, with John asking obligatory questions to which the secretary responds as generalized secretaries will, with secretarial propriety. As dialogue, then, the conversation fails, since whatever else good dialogue does it should also reveal character, and, as a consequence of doing so, entertain. But the secretary has no character—certainly she's not developed as one—and so what we get here is at best a Q & A session designed to deliver exposition to the reader, at worst an example of what Frank Conroy of the Iowa Writer's Workshop used to call "ping-pong" dialogue ("Hi, how are you?" "I'm fine, and you?" "Okay.")

Since the two main components of drama are dialogue and action, and since the dialogue here leaves something to be desired, we're left with action, that of someone talking on a phone while driving, a static action, at best, in which the setting—the passing (Philadelphia?) scenery that might have lent some grit, is entirely absent. Hence drama without drama, or only the intrinsic, implied drama of a man reacting to the news of an associate's paralyzing stroke. And being intrinsic and implied, it is best dispatched through summary.

The author's decision to dramatize this moment, while understandable ("show, don't tell!"), is misguided, and the result—while technically competent—is gratuitous. The moment doesn't demand dramatization.

One solution: enter the story later, with John's arrival at the hospital, when he first sees his old friend lying paralyzed in a hospital bed, the genuinely dramatic scene to which this superfluous drama points. The drive, the phone call—these things belong in the background and are best left to the reader's imagination, and should be left there.

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