Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Showing, Not Telling

A while back I mentioned the old rule for writers: show, don't tell.
Then I ran across a book, "Gutshot Straight" by Lou Berney, that was a perfect example of showing and not telling.
It was as if some mysterious being said, "Oh, you want a perfect example? Here, try this."
This book grabs you by the throat and doesn't let you go. The main character, Shake, is in prison and about to be released. Now Berney had quite a job in front of him--he had to make you like Shake and plunge you as quickly as possible into the story.
If he had just described Shake as smart, told us a little about him, and then described the release from prison, it would have been, well, blah. A reader might ask, how smart could Shake have been if he was in prison in the first place? And considering what comes next in the book, the reader might decide Shake was not so smart after all. The reader's interest just might not be there. And it would have been boring.
So Berney could simply not just tell describe Shake and his situation. And he didn't. He shows it in a brilliant way. It's funny and tense.
Our first glimpse of Shake is in prison, just a few days before he's to be released. He's engaged in a card game with some of the toughest guys in prison. And he wins.
He wins because he's great at reading people and smart--but not smart enought to stay out of trouble. Because now, the toughest people in prison are angry at him and try to pick a fight with him, knowing that if he gets into trouble, he won't be released. This is when we see how creative Shake can be, in the ingenious ways in which he avoids getting killed and still get released on time.
The story of Shake's life, as it turns out. He's smart, but not smart enough to stay out of trouble.
And it's all done through dialog and action. The reader sees Shake in action. We aren't told what he is like. We see it from what the character does and says.
The reader is immediately engaged and sympathetic. We all KNOW people get beaten up in prison. People die. People get in trouble and don't get released on time. We know the danger and we like Shake because he was smart and had the guts to win the game. We're tense right from the beginning.

The really cool thing is that these initial pages aren't just about showing you Shake's character and getting your heart revved up. Because the situation is woven into the story. Facts from this chapter have an impact later, and what you learn about Shake's character in this scene is expanded upon as the novel progresses.
This is brilliant.  It's what writing is all about. It's characterization at its finest.  The character drives the plot--because Shake makes bad decisions (it's how he wound up in prison to begin with) but has the courage and intelligence to work his way out again...mostly. And isn't that really what life is all about? Trying to survive your mistakes?
If you get a chance to read at least the first chapter of "Gutshot Straight" you will have the most perfect example of "showing" I have ever run across.
Bravo, Mr. Berney.
I just hope I can do as well.