Tell, Don’t Show?: The Curious Method of Anthony Trollope

People generally advise writers to hint at things through the characters’ actions and words rather than reveal things forthrightly through the narrative.  This rule is referred to as “Show, Don’t Tell,” and many people have told me to follow it–slightly more times than people have told me to add more detail to particular scenes.  Yet, readers are all unique: the details desired by one another can live without.  Generally, the rule of “Show, Don’t Tell” ought to be followed; but, Terry Brooks in his work on writing, Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, reminds us that there is only one rule which must never be broken: “Don’t Bore the Reader.”  One may understand it as the overarching rule from which the others derive.  Depending on the writer, one can conceivably deep-six one or several others as long as this one is adhered to.

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But, I have always thought that there would be dire consequences to explaining away too much.  Then, I read, or rather listened to, an audiobook of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers.  He literally defenestrates this rule from the onset.  Not only does he defenestrate it, but he tells the reader that he despises the authorial technique of the writer holding back details and keeping the reader in suspense for what is often a banal ending.  Instead, he makes a pact with the reader with the result that, as much as possible, the reader will know everything he, the writer, knows!

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The Fear of Writing

Well, my dear readers, I find myself suffering from a case of scriptophobia.  Scriptophobia is defined as the fear of writing for the public.  The Wikipedia article says: “Scriptophobes tend to be very cautious in writing, while suffering symptoms including nausea, trembling, raised heart rate, and even losing consciousness.  Sufferers should be treated with the help of therapists.”  Be at ease: I only suffer from excessive caution and diffidence.  The thought of needing a therapist caused me to burst out laughing!  Though, I pity persons who fear criticism and become anxious over people knowing their inmost thoughts so much that they need a therapist to overcome this fear.

Hemingway is famous for a writer's block which lasted ten years and ended with what might be considered his masterpiece: The Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway is famous for a writer’s block which lasted ten years and ended with what might be considered his masterpiece: The Old Man and the Sea.

In a sense, however, I am writing this very article as therapy.  My case might be compared to stage fright, which I know no way of overcoming save by stepping into the spotlight.  (Admittedly, this is a smaller theater than I have at Medieval Otaku, but a theater all the same.)  Curiously, this case stems from me having submitted a novel to a writing contest.  You might say that I have finished a performance, but have experienced neither the approbation nor opprobrium of the spectators.  I feel like Beethoven with his back toward the audience at the end of his Ninth Symphony.  May my story have as happy an ending!

Beethoven

I sympathize heartily with Beethoven.  All my learning and creativity was poured into that novel, which I am not sure will be loved or hated.  This uncertainty has paralyzed my motivation to write.  As I write this article, I feel like a bed-ridden patient needing to re-accustom his limbs to exercise–even though my present case has lasted only four days.  I fear whether what I write will contain anything of value.

I'm reading a book on Joseph Conrad's life.  He did not have a very happy beginning, but I hope that it gets better.

I’m reading a book on Joseph Conrad’s life. He did not have a very happy beginning, but I hope that it gets better.

Yet, I have in the past described my posts as much mediocrity with a few gems.  A coal mine may have a few diamonds hidden among its depths, but one will never uncover the diamonds without shoveling tons of coal.  And it must be remembered that coal, though neither as beautiful nor as prized as diamonds, has much usefulness.

And so, it is time for me to start mining again.  Look for my article on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight soon and expect more articles to come after it!

On the Necessity of a Writer to Write

I had the pleasure of reading through the notebook which contained the grand majority of my posts written since Christmas.  Looking over them gave me a definite pleasure, as looking over one’s past accomplishments does.  My firm hope is to fill many more notebooks in the same manner; to which end, I have purchased five more Clairefontaine notebooks.

Painting of Dostoyevsky

Painting of Dostoyevsky

Which brings me to the question of why I bother to write so many articles, especially those posts which have only the slightest chance of drumming up interest: posts on old anime, obscure old authors, and unpopular figures in American history.  Part of it has to do with my love of the Great Conversation (n.b. the kind between authors, not the one held in purgatory), the delight of sharing what I know, the delight of someone revealing my ignorance, the joy of hitting the sublime, and the happiness of knowing that my words made someone else happy.  But, there is also a negative impetus on my writing: melancholy, envy, and misanthropy start to darken my soul if I do not write–especially if I do not write artfully.  Here’s a certain proof of the artistic temperament: one can neither be charitable, content, or unselfish unless they get their art out of their head and onto the page.

Philosophy, religion, and human nature--the components of the Great Conversation.  All of them are found in Plato.

Philosophy, religion, and human nature–the components of the Great Conversation. All of them are found in Plato.

Melancholy seems to be the primary affliction of artists and writers alike.  The only ones who avoid it are those who write or paint to the fullest powers of their ken.  For example, has one ever heard of Shakespeare becoming melancholy?  On the other hand, writers with stretches of time where they do not produce are those most prone to insanity or melancholy: Hemingway, Cowper, Hesse, etc.  Though, I have no doubt that the hatred showered on Hesse by the militant German public in WWI for his pacifism produced the need for Hesse to be admitted into an asylum and subjected to shock therapy.  (Does the latter really work?)

Herman Hesse

Herman Hesse

This brings me to another curious feature of writers: the need to be praised.  As Mark Twain once wrote: “I can live on a good compliment two weeks with nothing else to eat.”  This is a great weakness, as I often find myself anxious about whether a piece has been well received.  Instead of rolling up the time with vexation or allowing praise to puff up my ego, writers should simply busy their minds on the next task.  But in our defense, how else will we know whether we have written something worthwhile or need to go back to the drawing board?  If all the lights go on, an electrician knows he has done a good job; if there are no leaks, the plumber is satisfied; and if the beer is flavorful and refreshing, the brewer has a smile on his face.  When the last word is placed on the page, a writer is happy because the work is done.  But, many questions still swirl in the writer’s head: will no lights go one in readers’ minds?  Is the logic and plot rather full of holes?  Will there be a smile on the reader’s face at the end of it?

Why do my dear readers writer?

A Curious Criticism

In my friend’s article on Tolkien, he adduced a rather curious point against Lord of the Rings: hardly any of the protagonists died.  At first blush, this struck me as a fine absurdity!  Annoyed by a dearth of death!  Fie!  One ought to be more prone to criticize a work because too many of the characters die, as we see in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire.  Or are we to consider killing off beloved characters a virtue?  (Perhaps, if the story goes on for far too long, as in Sherlock Holmes, but we know how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to kill off Sherlock Holmes ended!)  Yet, below J D Thomp’s article, a commentator expressed aggreeance with his criticism!  This forces me to give the idea serious consideration.

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There used to be an excellent WWII show called Combat!, where the writers would throw darts at a board with the characters’ pictures to see which character should die in a particular episode.  The fact that one’s favorite character could die at any moment created a great sense of realism in that show; however, a similar callousness seems inappropriate in an epic fantasy or, rather, this epic fantasy.  A writer must pick what truths he wishes to examine in a book, and the mortality rate on a medieval battlefield or on a desperate journey does not concern Tolkien.  But, I will say that casualties among well armored persons, as our heroes were during the major battles of the work, were indeed very low in the Middle Ages.  Otherwise, I expect that Medieval noblemen would have had the same attitude to war as Hemingway and the other Lost Generation writers.

You can bet they're all having the time of their lives!

You can bet they’re all having the time of their lives!

In a prior post, I mentioned how themes of mercy, providence, and sin abound in Lord of the Rings.  It does not make Providence look very provident if Gimli (when cut off at Helm’s Deep), Pippin (in fighting the Black Rider), Gandalf (in Moria), Sam (Mordor), and Frodo (Mordor) all end up dead by the end of the book, does it?  (Of course, if one wishes to examine the problem of evil, so many deaths is quite appropriate.)  There were ample opportunities for all of these characters to die!  As for the Deus Ex Machina rescue of Sam and Frodo, that fits in with the above three themes.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”  As Frodo spared Gollum’s life despite Sam’s urging to kill him, it is no wonder that Frodo should be providently rescued.  If the ring represents sin, salvation is naturally found when sin is destroyed–and the advent of salvation is as marvelous as it is unexpected!

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I should adduce one more thing for consideration.  I have written the first draft of a novel, where one of my favorite characters dies–and relatively early in the work.  Note my wording: “where one of my favorite characters dies.”  Does this not sound altogether passive?  That’s because it is so.  In the story in my mind, I simply saw Thord dying in that battle.  To write otherwise would be false to the story.  It would not surprise me if Tolkien faithfully passed on a story he felt that he was given.

I want a library like that.

I want a library like that.

And should this make us upset?  No!  When a great character should die, let him die and take a piece of our hearts with him.  If a great character lives, let us rejoice that he obtains the glory and peace due to him.