Show, don’t tell (unless you are a bestseller)

Picking up a novel by a renowned or best-selling author should be a generally safe bet for a good read, but it’s not.

We know their names, we’ve read their books. We have probably read one or two. Maybe we have a thing for the author and have read all their books. Either way, when we pick up one of their books do we flick a switch in our mind which allows us to accept poor writing? Do we give allowances because as a bestseller they must be good? Do we feel that saying anything would be wrong because so many other people have accepted the novel?

It isn’t difficult to find poorly written novels. The ebook publishing explosion means its easy to find some terribly written novels. I really like Smashwords, but the quality of the fiction can be hit and miss. However, when we pick up a bestseller, shouldn’t we feel confident that we are reading a well-written novel? We should but do we?

Let me give you an example. I was reading a crime novel with a first person narrator. There are some great ones out there that I do not want to contaminate by listing here. I’ll save them for another time. The novel I was reading was not a great crime novel with a first person narrator, but it should have been. The author has written dozens of books and earned millions.

So, I am reading along and come across these two sentences:

“A couple of doors from Jimmy’s I give a buck to a pan-handler I know named Reuben. Reuben’s a homeless man, nearly blind, unemployable.”

Given the title of the novel, which makes a reference to sight and the murder which involves a man’s eyes being cut out, it could have been important…until I continued reading.

“A quirk of mine is that I leave the house every morning with ten singles. I give them out on the streets until they’re gone. My father used to do the same thing with five singles when we would visit New York together. He didn’t think it was a bed deal, and neither do I.”

It is a throwaway statement that screams “this is a poorly written novel.” I would like to think that if an editor or agent read that paragraph, the story would be rejected or at the very least, the editorial process would remove it. I mean, what purpose does it serve? For a while I considered that it might serve a more important purpose because otherwise, why was it there? It didn’t. I was disappointed.

The first couple of sentences establish that the narrator is charitable. He has handed out a dollar and more important has some awareness of who he is handing out the money to. As a reader, I am thinking this is a good guy involved in his community. But then I continue reading. The definite statement that “every morning” he leaves with ten singles and gives them out is rubbish. At no other point in the novel is he giving out money. Added to that, where does he get the singles, everyday? How many times have you left the house and not had any money? You’ve had to get money out, but it never comes in singles. To get singles you’d have to line up in the bank at least once or twice a week. Would you really line up and ask for $70 in singles? Probably not. If you were that committed to charity, you’d donate to a local charity on a regular basis and give out more than just singles. It’s inefficient.

But there is more in the paragraph. There is the father issue. His dad did it and now he does it. Fine, the character has some important role for his father? Not at all. The father is a rarely mentioned two-dimensional character. So why is it important? It’s not.

In the final statement of the paragraph everything changes. The narrator tells us, “He didn’t think it was a bed deal, and neither do I.” On the contrary, if you didn’t think it was a big deal, you wouldn’t have mentioned it, so you do think it is a big deal and have said it is something you do everyday, which is rubbish. So I am finally left thinking that this narrator is not telling me everything. The initial attempt to present a charitable character has resulted in me questioning the narrator and everything he tells me. And what happens in the book? Is the narrator shown to be deceptively representing events? Is he in fact presenting a course of events that should be questioned? Is he the character that should be investigated? Is this a novel version of The Usual Suspects? Not at all. The paragraph just turns out to be part of a poorly written book.

I found other equally poor sections of this book that I am not going to bore you with. I am also not going to give you a name because quite frankly the individual case isn’t the point. The point, not to be too specific, is the extent to which we accept poor writing.

So, to return to my title: Show, don’t tell (unless you are a bestseller).

Let me just finish that off. Show, don’t tell, unless you are a bestseller in which case you can write any old crap you like and we will buy and read it. I did.


3 thoughts on “Show, don’t tell (unless you are a bestseller)

  1. Well, to me i dont think the authors name does matter… of course if i know ive read books of that person before and liked it i might go and buy it. also when friends recommend a book but still, if i dont like what i read i stop and the book goes to live with another person who might like it better. i am not sure if there is such a thing as good written or poorly written or if it is just that the author and reader sometimes wont go along with each other…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it is a shame. Sometimes we rely on well-known names to deliver. If it was any other type of book, I would have invested more time in the making a decision, but the whole point was I just wanted a quick summer time read. Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Showing not telling is always good. But there are many other elements to consider too, such as creating conflict/drama & snappy stimulus/response dialogue along with strong, memorable, empathetic protagonists. Exposition and description is considered bad because it is SLOW. Dramatic summary good because it is FAST. Patricia Highsmith once said that only two items should be mentioned when a characters walk into a room, she also said that if a writer can summarize pages of dialogue into a paragraph, then that is a good thing— The challenge is fitting all this into you opening paragraph, and each subsequent one too.


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