Greatness in a book of fiction ― Show, don’t tell?

posted in: A Writer's Life, Blog | 0

What makes for greatness in a book of fiction? Maybe this is a question impossible to answer for currently published books because only time can tell.

I did read a book some time ago that I thought was the greatest I have read in a very long while (counting some classics). I will bet on its being among the rare few that can stand the test of time. The book is The The Shadow of the Wind, originally written in Spanish by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and first published in English in 2001.

I’m convinced that a large part of what is memorable and great about Shadow lies in four words, “Cemetery of Forgotten Books.” With these words, Zafón created a seductive idea, using them as the name of a physical, palpable entity, a place.

old forgotten books

The label is quite evocative and so unique that if words (or the idea they represent) could be iconic, this name would do it for Shadow of the Wind. It reeks of meaning and pathos in its allusion to oblivion, death, and endings, not only of people and places, but also of books. An allusion that, to writers, could and probably does, spell our own fate. For, how many of us can actually trounce time and live on in our creations?

A view of present-day Madrid

In Shadow, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is where the story begins but is also where it ends. Dust onto dust. The fate of our words.

Something else you will notice about Shadow: the story is mostly told, not shown. You do not get a description of events as if you were directly observing them as they unfold. What you get are characters telling stories, filtered through flawed or deceptive (or deceiving) memories. The young narrator in the story has sought them out in his search for truth. The last 150-some pages of this 500-some pages book are all devoted to the “telling” by a central character of what happened in the past that finally helps the young narrator understand the fate of a writer whose trail he has been tracing.

“Show, don’t tell, is a sacred rule writers hear from those who presume to teach writing. But is it what makes for greatness in a book? There are those who challenge this dictum. A recent journal article, for example, starts with this statement:

“Spend long enough in creative writing workshops and you will hear someone say, “Show, don’t tell.” However, explanations as to quite why the writer should show us things rather than tell us about them are contradictory and unsatisfactory.”

-—Peter Griffiths, “On Showing and Telling.” In New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, September 2013

I confess I haven’t read this article and as has been my experience with academic writing, it appears from the abstract that Griffiths

“argues that the only way to really understand the question is to make use of research into the psychology of these ideas… “

Reading Like A Writer

Ah, yes, more research. I’ve been through that kind of road before. So, Griffiths does not really give answers, but who can blame him if he finds none of the existing arguments or evidence convincing. He does apparently pay special attention to this now oft-quoted assertion from Francine Prose in Reading Like A Writer (Harper Perennial, 2007), a book I have read:

“…….the passage (from “Dulse,” by Alice Munro) contradicts a form of bad advice often given young writers — namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell.”

“Bad advice,” she calls “show, don’t tell.” Her own would be to read the works of as many great writers as you could because they illustrate what Ms. Prose holds sacred in writing:

“….the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.

The reading list she recommends to anyone who wants to write well consists of great fiction by writers gifted or highly skilled at choosing the most appropriate words (the “apt word choice’) to express what they want to say, in the most economical way possible.

In the novel, Shadow of the Wind, “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” are four words so chosen. Four words which hold the greatness in a book of fiction.

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Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind

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