Show and tell and the hook

It’s one of the drum beats of the online writing boards: show don’t tell.

The inner urge to set the scene, to explain, to paint a picture of the endlessly clever fantasy world you’ve just created, this impulse can be almost irresistible. Usually it’s not a great idea.

Contrary to this often-cited good advice, in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, “tell” can work and work exceptionally well.

Here’s how Maile Meloy begins the first story, “Travis, B.” in her collection “Both Ways is the Only Way I want It” (Riverhead Books, New York, 2009). The first paragraph:

Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore. In Logan, they still did, and he had it before he was two. He recovered, but his right hip never fit in the socket, and his mother always thought he would die young.

The plain, Western (in the U.S. sense), flat prose of that first sentence makes it easy to read, and sets up just enough of a question in the reader’s mind (or did in mine) to keep me going. The last sentence really pulls me in. His mother always thought he would die young.

I think one of the reasons the paragraph works so well is because it doesn’t try to explain anything for the reader. It simply states the facts, doesn’t ask for any sympathy, doesn’t show anybody’s feelings. But it does make the reader feel a certain way. It makes the reader root for this crippled kid whose mother expects him to die young. You pretty much can’t help it. The characteristics the writer has shown by that paragraph are lots of restraint and a trust that if you set out the facts with no window dressing, and if you’ve got some good stuff in mind, it will work just fine. You feel like your in the hands of a writer you can trust.

But after that first paragraph, where do you (as a writer) go? Meloy keeps up the pace:

When he was fourteen, he started riding spoiled and unbroken horses, to prove to her that he was invincible. They bucked and kicked and piled up on him again and again. He developed a theory that horses didn’t kick or shy because they were wild; they kicked and shied because for millions of years they’d had the instinct to move fast or be lion meat.

The first phrase of that second paragraph jumps the reader forward ten years, answering any question of survival, and (I think this is important) letting the reader know that this isn’t one of those stories that’s going to bog down. We’re going to fly right along, the writer seems to be saying, and everything in here is essential stuff, trust me. Then the sentence goes right on with what Chet did and why he did it. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any way to make that first sentence any more direct, any simpler or any better. The next sentence tells what happened in damn few words, and the third sentence tells us the theory Chet developed.

He’s fourteen, he’s got a bum hip, he out to prove he’s damn tough despite it and he thinks about things.

How are you not rooting for this character?

That is a hook.

The hook has the Character component: Chet, the kid we root for. It also has a good subject matter component: You’re going to get another way of looking at things from this story, viz. in the second paragraph we’re into a theory of animal behavior. And it has a third component that lets you know that this writer is not going to bore you, not going to drag things out; this writer is going to tell you only those things about Chet that are worth telling. No digressions, nothing superfluous. We’ll skip ahead ten years here and there, whatever it takes.

There’s something about the way Meloy writes about the West that particularly appeals to me because I’m a child of that country. A great-grandmother grew up in a sod house in Kansas, I was born in Spokane, went to school in Idaho, and at one time or another criss-crossed plenty of that country on two-lane road, not always paved. With nothing much to listen to on the radio, you look out at the fields that sweep away to rolling hills, sometimes to mountains, the tick of telephone poles passing, and there’s not much to see but the land fenced off with what must be a million million miles of bobwire. Sometimes the fence posts are modern painted steel. Sometimes they’re perfect smooth round wood posts. But every once in a while you come across a stretch that goes way back, with the barbed wire all rusty and sagging and pulled out of the posts to curl back against itself. The fence posts, triangular in cross-section, have been hacked out of pine logs with axes or maybe a sledge and a wedge. You can see in their twisted shapes where the limbs were cut away. That’s what Meloy’s prose reminds me of, land like that and all the effort and sweat that went into fencing it off.

Just a few more paragraphs, because they’re too good not to include:

“You mean because they’re wild,” his father had said when Chet advanced this theory.

He couldn’t explain, but he thought his father was wrong. He thought there was a difference, and that what people meant when they called a thing “wild” was not what he saw in the green horses at all.

He was small and wiry, but his hip made it hard for him to scramble out from under the horses, and he broke his right kneecap, his right foot, and his left femur before he was eighteen. His father drove him to Great Falls, where the doctors put a steel rod in his good leg from hip to knee. From then on, he walked as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.

Yes, there are damn fine story openings that use “tell.”


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