Show and Tell

In our Zoom critique session this morning, we of Crème de la Crime got into a discussion of when to show and action or emotion and when to tell.

The oft-repeated direction is ‘show, don’t tell.’ Like any rule, particularly any rule in writing, it’s made to be broken.

Show is usually better. More action, and it calls on the reader’s imagination, which we authors hope draws the reader into the story.

But …

As our member Karl pointed out, sometimes it takes a paragraph of show to carry out what a sentence of tell can do.

In the end, Greg rewrote the Serenity Prayer thusly:

God, grant me the focus to show when it's warranted,
the brevity to tell when appropriate,
and the wisdom the know the difference.

Agatha Christie and Sexual Abuse

Agatha Christie gave me the courage to include a currently-risky idea in Fatal Score

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not as widely-read in my own genre as I should be. The category ‘Thriller’ is a subset of Suspense, which is in turn a subset of Mystery. So I set out to read some contemporary and classic mysteries. My prior post covers several contemporary works. 

I’ve just finished Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, widely considered to be one of her best. It’s also the best-selling mystery of all time. 

It makes one understand why she is so important to the genre. The book was published in Britain in 1939 under the title Ten Little Niggers, taken from the minstrel song that structures the plot. It has been published in the United States under a couple of titles (including a substitution of ‘Indians’ for the n-word, which probably worked fine in 1940 but is surely suspect today). The edition I read uses the last line of the song. Which brings us to fashion, which is to say, what is considered good form at a point in time.

Clothing fashion moves quickly. I always thought writing fashion was far slower. But even eighty years ago, writing fashion was quite different than today.

Today, authors are encouraged to minimize the number of named characters to reduce confusion. By my count, Christie has twenty. We are taught not to switch character perspective (point of view) often. The exception is the Romance category, which tolerates rapid POV change (derisively known as head-hopping). Christie would give a heavy-breathing romance novel a run for its money. In dialog, we are told not to lead with ‘he/she said’, because we end up with a string of them. Christie does it all the time.

The point for me is, after all that, And Then There Were None is a ripping good story. Clean structure set up by the poem. By the second death, every reader knows what’s going to happen and has hints as to how. The technique issues quickly become irrelevant to the reading of the story.

I mention all of this because I got a surprising response from one of my (female) beta readers of Fail Deadly. In the story, Weezy is captured and tortured to force her to keep a secret. The torturer is a man, and when he gets the opportunity (when his female boss is not around), the torture is sexual. The beta reader said, “I would not read this. No agent will accept it.” The gist of the argument was that the tenor of the times will not allow it, particularly as written by a man. Too sensitive; too toxic. 

Unfortunately, the despicable acts are important to character arc, so I’m presented with a conundrum. Weaken the story or risk rejection and censure?

Emboldened by several other female beta readers and my editor, I finally concluded that the bones of the story override the sensitivity of the times. Hope I’m right.