Show Don’t tell?
Show don’t tell. How many times is that command repeated in writing workshops? It’s not without its truth, but I’m wondering if it’s become an easily repeated shorthand for something that needs to be teased out.
Show don’t tell suggests that all telling equals bad writing and all showing equals good. Tell that to Paul Auster, master storyteller, whose substantial body of work explores the power of story itself.
October is turning out to be Paul Auster month for me. I’ve seen him speak twice about his work – at the BFI after a screening of his 1995 film Smoke, and at The Shaw Theatre, talking about his new memoir, Winter Journal. I’ve read Winter Journal and re-read The Red Notebook - Auster's thoughts on writing. All of which set me thinking about that familiar workshop mantra.
Smoke is a film that every aspiring fiction writer needs to see. It grew from Auster’s short story, ‘Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story.’ Auster wrote the screenplay and collaborated with director, Wayne Wang on making the film.
Why is it so important that you see it? It’s a film that shows how to tell stories and shows why we need to tell stories. It’s a masterpiece. If I had my way, it would be on the syllabus of every fiction-writing course.
Smoke is a story about stories; how they intersect and overlap; how chance encounter and co-incidence precipitate change. At the start of the film a young man, Rashid, intervenes in the life of Paul Benjamin [played by William Hurt – the film is worth seeing for Hurt’s performance alone], a grieving writer unable to finish his novel. From then on their two lives become entwined in unexpected ways. A web of connections begins to spin, circling around the hub of a corner-store smoke shop, The Brooklyn Cigar Company, manned by Auggie [played by Harvey Keitel, another amazing performance].
This video clip, from the opening minutes, announces the film’s story theme with the telling of how to weigh smoke.
On stage after the screening of Smoke [BFI, 6 October], Auster explained how Wang had read the Auggie Wren story in The New York Times and knew it would make a film. Auster gave Wang his blessing but wasn’t at first involved in the project. Eventually he did get drawn into writing the screenplay. Auster was generous in acknowledging the contributions made by his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt, who helped him brainstorm a first draft, and friend, the director Robert Altman, who cast his eyes on the final draft. He recalled how he’d showed Altman what he, Auster, believed to be the finished goods. Altman suggested it needed another character which Auster duly added, though he wouldn’t say which one. ‘I’m too embarrassed,’ he claimed but insisted Altman’s contribution was crucial.
The debt to his collaborators aside, what is striking about the film is how much Auster’s narrative voice and preoccupation with storytelling have transferred from page to screen. Watching Smoke is an experience that is not unlike reading, say, Brooklyn Follies.
The film manages to stay true to Auster’s founding influence, as discussed in The Red Notebook, ‘… the greatest influence on my work has been fairy tales, the oral tradition of story-telling.’ Auster’s work privileges the speaking teller of the tale. Of Ghosts from The New York Trilogy, Auster says, ‘The storyteller is part of the story, even though he never uses the word I.’
Smoke is a love-song to oral story telling. It’s an urban folk tale, a point emphasised in the penultimate scene when Auggie recounts a story to Paul Benjamin. In film terms the scene is static – two men sit talking – but the camera plays on Auggie’s face picking up the nuances of his expressions, his pauses. As Auggie’s story reaches its conclusion the camera moves in to a close-up of just his – telling – mouth.
We guess there’s a grain of truth in Auggie’s story but suspect some of it is fabricated. When Auggie has finished his tale, Paul Benjamin leans back, takes a long drag on his small cigar, exhales, smiles and says:
‘Bullshit takes real talent, Auggie … To make up a good story you have to know how to push all the right buttons. I’d say you were up there with the masters.’
‘Wadd’ya mean?’ asks Auggie.
‘It’s a good story.’ Benjamin replies and the two agree life wouldn’t be worth living if friends didn’t share stories.
So why has the show don’t tell mantra taken such a hold? I think it’s because in early drafts – the stuff of most workshops – the weakest writing is a kind of outline telling, not fully voiced. It’s as if at such moments the writer is still telling herself the story. I tend to mark up these passages as notes-to-self. It’s not a matter of simply deleting such passages but working out what it is you are trying to tell yourself. At such moments it’s too easy to say show don’t tell.
A more nuanced feedback might include a few probing questions: what is it you are telling yourself? Do you need a dramatised moment here? Do you need to tell? If so, who is the teller? Is the teller fully part of the story, strongly voiced, engaging? Might the teller have a miss-hit a few buttons here?
Auster’s work is a reminder that not all telling is bad, but that to achieve the oral-tradition- effect-on-the-page for a contemporary reader you do have to know how to push the buttons. It a matter of voice and pace that can’t afford to slip.
Auster makes telling an art. He gets the voice – tone and pace – pitch-perfect, drawing the reader in as would a storyteller round a campfire.
‘Is that any good? I’m taking my boyfriend to see him next Tuesday...It’s his birthday.’
‘I’ve only read ten pages,’ I replied but I talked eagerly about Smoke and Auster’s insight into the making of it. She hadn’t heard of the film – being under 25 I guess she must have been at primary school when it was first released. She was excited to be able to get the DVD for her boyfriend’s birthday; equally, I was delighted to discover Auster would be talking about the writing of Winter Journal at a separate event. As soon as I got home I booked a ticket online.
More of that book/event in another post. It’s looking as if Winter Journal will turn out to be my Book of The Month.