Show, Don’t Tell

Show, Don’t Tell. The mantra of writing books, writing instructors, and conference speakers. Show through characters’ actions and dialogue. Its just one more thing that intimidates me as a writer.

I started rereading some Erle Stanley Gardner novels – Erle Stanley, the man who wrote the Perry Mason series. Something I noticed in his writing is the absence of point of view – unless you count the narrator who knows nothing going on inside a character’s head as a point of view. The novel I’m refering to is “The Case of the Glamorous Ghost.”

The story is all action and dialogue. No getting into anyone’s head, which takes care of my penchant for headhopping. Through the first five chapters of this novel, the closest thing to being in a character’s head are the following passages:

“Mason noticed that there were morning newspapers on the floor, that someone had neatly snipped the account of the park ghost from the paper.” Could anyone else have observed that? Certainly. Is it a point of view? That’s debatable.

The second passage: “Della Street, piqued at the lawyer’s reticence, settled back against the cushions and remained silent until they reached her apartment house.” Here, again, is there is a question of whether the narrator is in Della’s head. She may have had an easily observable facial expression, and one could not help but notice her silence. Nothing about what she was thinking.

I don’t know what that means, but I do know that I’ve enjoyed Gardner’s books for a long time. Furthermore, I once read a book under his authorship and thought it wasn’t up to his usual quality. On closer inspection, someone else wrote the book but was allowed by Gardner’s family to publish under Gardner’s name. So, it does make a difference.

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