Whisper Don’t Laugh

John Crowley posted about the dangers of writing as if you’re transcribing a movie in your head. In an exchange in the comments, he says:

It may be a skill thing indeed. Writers of the "show-don’t-tell" school have to find a way to tell without seeming to tell. They have given up the deep richness Tom Disch talked about and yet because it’s a necessary and central part of fiction they have to win it back by other means, often at great effort. It’s part of the reason why that directive can produce bad writing, or is at least not unambiguous as a prescription. Wayne Booth famously pointed out that the distinction is hopeless: there is nothing in fiction that is shown and not told — it’s all told.

And later:

If you could make mental movies like Hitchcock made actual ones, you would be in a different mode. And the "layered way" IS the glory of fiction and not available to film; it is the way that books are made as rich as the best films. But many inexperienced writers try to skip that step, proceeding directly form mental image to recounting. "I come in the room. The mangy dog is standing by the refrigerator. His eyes are on me. I hear a noise behind me, and turn. An even mangier dog is standing in the doorway. Turning to the window, I see a face looking in at me. Fear takes over my body, and I run to the left of the mangy dog, past him and out the door. Scenery rushes past me as I flee down the dark street," etc. Even good or potentially good writers who have fallen into this trap and are faced by their own production of stuff of this kind and know it’s no good don’t always see the reason, which I called Mental Movie Transcription.

It’s worth reading the whole thread.

2 thoughts on “Whisper Don’t Laugh”

  1. When I wrote my first novel (at the ripe age of 23/24), I made that exact mistake. No inner monologues, no thoughts no multiple points of view… only the “invisible cameraman” following the protagonist around. I suppose I was trying out “what would work” stylistically, but I never wrote in that manner again: it’s too limiting and easily gets mind-numbingly repetitive.

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