Friday, November 5, 2010

Busted!—Dennis Lehane caught "showing" through exposition

When you hear the old adage, “show, don’t tell,” how would you break down the “showing” versus the “telling”? Many would break “showing” down into elements that create the sense that a reader is living out a scene moment by moment—namely dialogue, evocative setting, action, and suspense. “Telling,” one might conclude, is the point of exposition, those sections where the narrator communicates directly to the reader by summarizing events and character traits.

If you accept these generalized definitions you will miss out on opportunities to “show” through exposition.

Dennis Lehane does just that in his literary mystery, Mystic River. This passage is excerpted from a spontaneous block party that erupts after the return of 11-year-old Jimmy Marcus’s kidnapped friend, Dave Boyle. Jimmy doesn’t yet know what happened to Dave, but sees that he is surrounded by police and well wishers that include their fifth grade teacher, Miss Powell. When Miss Powell kisses Dave twice on the cheek Jimmy wants to run right up and tell her he almost got in the car with the kidnappers, too. He watches her in some detail—her crooked upper tooth, the curve of her right calf and ankle as she gets into a car. The following section comes right after Jimmy’s mother comments on the fact that his teacher is cute.
“Real cute,” his mother repeated into a gray ribbon of exhaled smoke.

Jimmy still didn’t say anything. Most of the time he didn’t know what to say to his parents. His mother was worn out so much. She stared off at places Jimmy couldn’t see and smoked her cigarettes, and half the time didn’t hear him until he’d repeated himself a couple times. His father was pissed off usually, and even when he wasn’t and could be kind of fun, Jimmy would know that he could turn into a pissed-off drunk guy any second, give Jimmy a whack for saying something he might have laughed at half an hour before. And he knew that no matter how hard he tried to pretend otherwise, he had both his father and his mother inside of him—his mother’s long silences and his father’s sudden fits of rage.

When Jimmy wasn’t wondering what it would be like to be Miss Powell’s boyfriend, he sometimes wondered what it would be like to be her son.
This passage has no elements of scene. It is not continuous in action, there is no dialogue after the opening line, the setting fades to the background, and Lehane relies upon subtle psychological suspense to carry the reader through the passage—he is hoping that by now you care to hear a little bit about Jimmy.

It also refrains from cutting away to a flashback. The cigarette smoking and drinking didn’t happen at any one significant moment that scarred Jimmy for life; they are a constant.

Lehane could have saved some words by “telling” us that Jimmy was always on tenterhooks because his home life was chaotic, but that would not have evoked the paradox that is Jimmy. Instead Lehane quite brilliantly “showed” us Jimmy's psychological genetics. And considering this passage is from page 37, he has foreshadowed some great internal conflict that will continue to devil Jimmy throughout the book.

Think this is show and tell? I’d buy that analysis, too. But in “telling” us about Jimmy’s mom and dad, Lehane is “showing” us Jimmy.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Good example. I'm impressed with the way Michael Connelly can let Harry Bosch "tell" us stuff in a way that seems totally consistent with the character.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. This is a great example which shows how "telling" can be vivid and interesting.
    Author of Love of a Stonemason

  3. Terry: Thanks for the extra example! Part of my mission with these "Busted" posts is to encourage people to see that everything we read can help us become better writers.

  4. Christa: We writers can't catch a break, can we? (lol) Even our telling must be creative and evocative. But ah, that's the fun of it...

  5. Excellent example, and I am going to send a link to a client who is looking for help in how to use narrative summary effectively. This post is better than any advice I could give him. Thanks.

  6. What makes this work so well is that the character has an emotional connection to what is being told.

  7. Yes, Maryann, I love this second comment! Too many rookie authors want to write their story like a film, describing the color of hair or style of clothes so we can SEE them, instead of bringing the emotional makeup of the character to life. The most successful and memorable passages do this.

  8. Mystic River was the perfect example for this post, Kathryn.

  9. Excellent! I've used Mystic River quite a bit in classes I teach. Lehane is a good example of an author who can combine the plot-centered thriller/mystery with the more literary character-centered and do it well.

  10. I agree, Hiedi. Elizabeth George is another literary mystery writer. Great characterization.

  11. Very neat. What a great example. Thanks.

  12. Kathryn, I have another comment on my Facebook wall, and it appears the reader didn't stop by here. FYI.

    Another good post - did you notice a couple of yours made Most Popular in the right sidebar of the blog? Teach people to swear and look what happens. ;)


  13. Excellent post. I'm trying to get through on this point to a critique partner right now.

    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  14. Good passage by Dennis Lehane. Maybe someone can shed some more light on the matter of showing versus telling. How much, in your opinion, is an acceptable ratio of one versus the other? 80:20, 70:30, 60:40 etc.?

    Some authors explain that well known works (some classics) have very little dialogue, and some none at all.

    Lehane does well in evoking an emotion for Jimmy. However, I'm afraid I don't see how Jimmy's hair color or clothing has anything to do with the passage. It will be written at some point, otherwise he is an abstract character without any visual aspects.

  15. Frank: Once a character comes to life for me in this evocative way I can picture him perfectly. I don't need to be told his hair color. In fact, if the Lehane had later tried to tell me that Jimmy was a blond, I'd fight him on that!

    I'll hold on to the ratio question, as it inspires a full post. Stay tuned--I'll answer it after our special focus on e-books.

  16. Kathryn,
    As there are different approaches available in presenting one's look, this would be the one in which the character's look is left to the readers's imagination. I haven't read this work of Lehane's, so I can't comment on whether or not Jimmy is given visual characteristics later in the story.
    To assume because one uses visual description for a character means there is no emotional development of the character, well, not sure why you would assume that.
    I've enjoyed stories in which the character was visually described, and, given an emotional makeup. Sounds awfully complete...
    In fact, I'd say a description which connects to the emotional makeup can bring a character to a whole new level.
    It's funny that this point is coming up here, because I recently had a wonderful chat with an older couple about novel writing. And we talked specifically about visualization of characters and different ways it can be done.


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