Effective Novel Opening: Telling vs Showing

Okay, a recent post here was about “rules that are begging to be broken” and this led to various comments about “show don’t tell,” and so I went looking for actual novel openings that might be useful and interesting in this context. Patricia Wrede briefly defines “telling” as “giving the reader the conclusion they would draw, without giving them any of the actions or thoughts or descriptions that would lead them to that conclusion.” This seems like a good basic definition to me.

Her example of “telling” is “The long, dangerous trip to Byzantium took them six months, and they were nearly captured by pirates twice, but they arrived safely at last just in time for the coronation.” There’s no actual conclusion to be drawn here, however. This is just a statement that something happened. This is definitely telling. Compressing time isn’t the only use for telling, but it’s certainly useful.

To get a sample of text to examine, I typed, “excerpts Laura Ruby” because she’s a great writer and her name popped into my head when I thought, “Hmm, who’s a great writer whom I haven’t mentioned for a while?”

So, here are the opening paragraphs of Bone Gap, a book I loved, by the way; one of many I would like to re-read one of these days. It’s not precisely a retelling, but it’s strongly flavored by the Persephone myth.

***

The People of Bone Gap

The people of Bone Gap called Finn a lot of things, but none of them was his name. When he was little, they called him Spaceman. Sidetrack. Moonface. You. As he got older, they called him Pretty Boy. Loner. Brother. Dude.

But whatever they called him, they called him fondly. Despite his odd expressions, his strange distraction, and that annoying way he had of creeping up on a person, they knew him as well as they knew anyone. As well as they knew themselves. They knew him like they knew that Old Charlie Valentine preferred his chickens to his great-grandchildren, and sometimes let them roost in the house. (The chickens, not the children.) The way they knew that the Cordero family had a ghost that liked to rifle through the fridge at night. The way they knew that Priscilla Willis, the beekeeper’s homely daughter, had a sting worse than any bee. The way they knew that Bone Gap had gaps just wide enough for people to slip through, or slip away, leaving only their stories behind.

As for Finn, well, they thought he was a little weird, but that was okay with them. “Yeah, that boy’s nuttier than a honey cluster,” they might say. “But he’s a fine-looking nut. A sharp nut. Our nut.” Finn, they were sure, had his heart in the right place. Just the way they did.

Eventually, though, they found out that there was a good reason for Finn’s odd expressions, his strange distraction, that annoying way he had of creeping up on a person. A good reason he never looked anyone in the eye.

But by then it was too late, and the girl they loved most—and knew least of all—was gone

2: Finn

Roadkill

The corn was talking to him again.

It had been a warm winter and a balmy spring in Bone Gap, so everyone with a field and a taste for corn had plowed and planted earlier than they’d ever dared before. On the last day of his junior year, exactly two months after his life had burst like a thunderhead, Finn walked home from the bus stop past plants already up to his waist. It was his favorite part of the afternoon, or should have been: the sun bright and hot in the sky, the plants twitching their green fingers. Corn can add inches in a single day; if you listened, you could hear it grow. Finn caught the familiar whisper—here, here, here—and wished it would shut up.

His friend Miguel would have agreed. Miguel hated the corn, said the plants seemed . . . alive. When Finn reminded him that, duh, of course the corn was alive, all plants were alive, Miguel replied that the corn sounded alive alive. As if it wasn’t just growing, it was ripping itself out of the ground and sneaking around on skinny white roots. Scarecrows weren’t made to scare the crows, they were made to scare the corn. It was enough to give a person nightmares. Otherwise, why would so many horror movies have cornfields in them?

Finn had nightmares enough, but not about cornfields. His dreams used to be filled with the typical stuff: getting naked with this girl or that one. Evading psychos with hatchets and roller skates. Showing up in class wearing nothing but a snorkel and a single plaid sock. Flying so high that not even the clouds could keep up.

Now? He couldn’t close his eyes without seeing Roza’s slim hands slapping at fogged glass, the gleaming black SUV swallowed up by the gathering dark.

He didn’t sleep if he could help it. And he didn’t listen to the corn anymore. Why should he, when it wouldn’t stop lying?

Sweat prickled on his scalp, and he stopped to switch his backpack from one shoulder to the other. The cornfield stretched out for miles, but standing here, on a hazy back road in Illinois, you wouldn’t know it. The pavement in front of Finn ended in a wall of sky, as if it had been sliced off by the swing of a scythe.

He might have stood there for a while, considering the cutaway road and the perfect metaphor it was, if a murder of black crows hadn’t shown up, cawing their stupid heads off.

Finn wasn’t impressed. “What are you guys supposed to be? Set decoration?”

They’ ll pluck out your eyes before they peck you to death, Miguel would have told him. Haven’t you ever seen Hitchcock? But Finn didn’t like movies, and he thought the crows were nothing but jokers and thieves. Which is what he called them. “Jokers.”

The crows said, “Coward!” They cackled and flapped, the sun shining blue on their glossy wings, beaks sharp as hay hooks.

So maybe Miguel had a point.

***

How much of that is showing and how much is telling? Honestly, it’s not always as easy to tell as someone might expect (or, at least, as I expected). Some of it could be called vivid telling, or it might be called a somewhat peculiar type of showing with flashbacks. When in doubt, I’m calling it telling. You can see what you think.

Anyway, here is the same excerpt. Everything I would call telling is now bolded.

***

The People of Bone Gap

The people of Bone Gap called Finn a lot of things, but none of them was his name. When he was little, they called him Spaceman. Sidetrack. Moonface. You. As he got older, they called him Pretty Boy. Loner. Brother. Dude.

But whatever they called him, they called him fondly. Despite his odd expressions, his strange distraction, and that annoying way he had of creeping up on a person, they knew him as well as they knew anyone. As well as they knew themselves. They knew him like they knew that Old Charlie Valentine preferred his chickens to his great-grandchildren, and sometimes let them roost in the house. (The chickens, not the children.) The way they knew that the Cordero family had a ghost that liked to rifle through the fridge at night. The way they knew that Priscilla Willis, the beekeeper’s homely daughter, had a sting worse than any bee. The way they knew that Bone Gap had gaps just wide enough for people to slip through, or slip away, leaving only their stories behind.

As for Finn, well, they thought he was a little weird, but that was okay with them. “Yeah, that boy’s nuttier than a honey cluster,” they might say. “But he’s a fine-looking nut. A sharp nut. Our nut.” Finn, they were sure, had his heart in the right place. Just the way they did.

Eventually, though, they found out that there was a good reason for Finn’s odd expressions, his strange distraction, that annoying way he had of creeping up on a person. A good reason he never looked anyone in the eye.

But by then it was too late, and the girl they loved most—and knew least of all—was gone

2: Finn

Roadkill

The corn was talking to him again.

It had been a warm winter and a balmy spring in Bone Gap, so everyone with a field and a taste for corn had plowed and planted earlier than they’d ever dared before. On the last day of his junior year, exactly two months after his life had burst like a thunderhead, Finn walked home from the bus stop past plants already up to his waist. It was his favorite part of the afternoon, or should have been: the sun bright and hot in the sky, the plants twitching their green fingers. Corn can add inches in a single day; if you listened, you could hear it grow. Finn caught the familiar whisper—here, here, here—and wished it would shut up.

His friend Miguel would have agreed. Miguel hated the corn, said the plants seemed . . . alive. When Finn reminded him that, duh, of course the corn was alive, all plants were alive, Miguel replied that the corn sounded alive alive. As if it wasn’t just growing, it was ripping itself out of the ground and sneaking around on skinny white roots. Scarecrows weren’t made to scare the crows, they were made to scare the corn. It was enough to give a person nightmares. Otherwise, why would so many horror movies have cornfields in them?

Finn had nightmares enough, but not about cornfields. His dreams used to be filled with the typical stuff: getting naked with this girl or that one. Evading psychos with hatchets and roller skates. Showing up in class wearing nothing but a snorkel and a single plaid sock. Flying so high that not even the clouds could keep up.

Now? He couldn’t close his eyes without seeing Roza’s slim hands slapping at fogged glass, the gleaming black SUV swallowed up by the gathering dark.

He didn’t sleep if he could help it. And he didn’t listen to the corn anymore. Why should he, when it wouldn’t stop lying?

Sweat prickled on his scalp, and he stopped to switch his backpack from one shoulder to the other. The cornfield stretched out for miles, but standing here, on a hazy back road in Illinois, you wouldn’t know it. The pavement in front of Finn ended in a wall of sky, as if it had been sliced off by the swing of a scythe.

He might have stood there for a while, considering the cutaway road and the perfect metaphor it was, if a murder of black crows hadn’t shown up, cawing their stupid heads off.

Finn wasn’t impressed. “What are you guys supposed to be? Set decoration?”

They’ ll pluck out your eyes before they peck you to death, Miguel would have told him. Haven’t you ever seen Hitchcock? But Finn didn’t like movies, and he thought the crows were nothing but jokers and thieves. Which is what he called them. “Jokers.”

The crows said, “Coward!” They cackled and flapped, the sun shining blue on their glossy wings, beaks sharp as hay hooks.

So maybe Miguel had a point.

***

So, what do you think? I think this is an interesting example of a prologue that breaks the rule that an effective prologue should be a self-contained story. It is effective, it’s deliberately misleading, and it’s all telling; there’s not a bit of actual story in it. The reader is told that the townspeople call Finn by all these names, but fondly. They think he’s weird, but they’re okay with that. These are very much conclusions that the reader is being handed on a platter.

The actual first chapter opens with story, then moves to setting and flashback, then moves on with the story. I’m calling the flashback mostly telling, but I can see that might be arguable. Regardless, I think this level of integration of telling with showing is pretty normal.

I’ve read one other novel by Laura Ruby, whose work I admire a lot. This was Thirteen Doorways Wolves Behind Them All. It’s a very impressive historical that includes a ghost story. It also, by the way, features a highly unreliable narrator and some very neat plot twists.

However, I haven’t read her York. series. Let’s take a look at how that one opens. Again, I’m going to bold the telling. I’ll say in advance that I’m finding this one difficult. It’s first person, and that means the description and conclusions are filtered through the perceptions of the narrator, and that means I’m not sure whether some of those descriptions and conclusions count as telling or showing. A lot of those details draw the reader into the perception of the character, but does that mean those details aren’t telling? I think they are. What do you think?

***

New Year’s Eve, 1855

The true story of any city is never a single tale; it’s a vast collection of stories with many different heroes. But most storytellers believe that theirs is the only true story and that they are the only true heroes.

They are surprised to find out they are wrong.

Just a few hours before midnight, a brief hush fell over the streets of New York City, as if someone were about to tell a grand tale of mystery and adventure and needed quiet to begin. William Covington Hanover didn’t like the sudden quiet and he already knew the story of New York City—his story. He had been in this city for barely a fortnight and had concluded it was teeming with ruffians, murderers, and thieves. That he himself was a murderer and a thief was beside the point. (And he would thrash the daylights out of anyone who called him a ruffian.)

No, the point was that William Covington Hanover didn’t look like a murderer or a thief. He had pride. He had standards. On this fine winter evening, the air aflutter with new snow, he wore a crisp white shirt with a pleated front, a white cravat, a dark tailcoat, and clean trousers. His top hat added to his already considerable height, and his fine wool greatcoat swept behind him like the regimentals of a British general.

Which was why pretty Miss Ava Oneal had no idea he’d been shadowing her for seven blocks.

And why would she? His was a stylish ensemble pinched from his last employer, the profoundly nearsighted Lord Something-or-Other of Somewhere-upon-Avon, who never seemed to notice when the candlesticks and silverware went missing. Until the day he did notice, causing an ill-advised tussle over a serving fork. William was forced to stuff his spoils into a pillowcase and steal aboard a packet bound for this strange city with its even stranger inhabitants. Ruffians, murderers, thieves . . . and fools. When the ship had docked in America, and he informed the immigration officials at Castle Garden that his name was “William Covington Hanover,” he was joking. Who would believe a man who had spent months crammed into a boat with shoemakers and potato farmers was a member of the House of Hanover, same as Queen Victoria? But they had merely scratched his quip in a ledger and waved him on.

And on he went. Through Battery Park and into the cauldron of the Five Points neighborhood, where he found lodging in a cramped tenement that reeked of gin fumes and rancid cabbage. Not much to steal in the Five Points, and far too much to drink. It didn’t take long for him to migrate into the heart of the city, where the shining Morningstarr Tower stood like a beacon to everything that he had desired his whole life and all that he deserved: riches and power beyond his wildest imaginings (though, honestly, just the riches would do).

Now he was on the upper west side of the island, where the wealthy had recently built rows of fine houses as well as some grand estates complete with lawns and forest. Most of the coppers stayed south near the Five Points, but a few wandered north to protect the wealthy from, well, people like William Covington Hanover. William nodded at the coppers on the corner, tipped his hat to the groups of ladies gathered to climb into horse-drawn carriages that would bear them to this ball, or that one.

“Good evening, ladies,” he said, in his best upper-crust English accent. “You are the picture of loveliness this magical night.”

“Good evening to you, sir,” said the boldest. The ladies giggled as he passed, eyes darting over his fine coat, his fair hair, his ready smile. As long as he didn’t get close enough for any of them to notice his cold-and-whisky-reddened nose or the knife scars on his white cheeks, he was safe. He would appear to be like any other gentleman making his way to a New Year’s Eve celebration instead of a man pursuing a dream in the form of Miss Ava Oneal.

Miss Ava was dressed less opulently—and more strangely—than the other ladies. Despite the festive occasion, she wore a plain jacket buttoned all the way up to the neck, a long dark skirt and cloak, and a mannish hat nearly as tall as William’s. But her outfit was not the most remarkable thing about her. Nor was it her small stature, flawless brown face, or the fact that she walked unescorted through the swirling, sparkling snow. It wasn’t even that she was reading a book in the dim light of the streetlamps as she went. No, it was Miss Ava Oneal’s employers who most intrigued him.

Employers by the names of Theresa and Theodore Morningstarr.

Miss Ava reached the corner and floated across the street, never lifting her gaze from her pages, though more than one coachman had to haul on the reins of his horses to keep from trampling her. The coppers watched her go, twirling their clubs, whispering amongst themselves. And the others watched her, too. William spied them everywhere; only the coppers could miss them. Rough men in gangs like the Dead Rabbits—or was it the Dead Roaches?—men who called themselves ludicrous things like Slobbery Jim and Patsy the Butcher, et cetera, et cetera. They lurked in alleys and in doorways, behind walls and trees, clad in oversized sack coats and tiny bowler hats the size of thimbles. William shook his head in disgust. In such a costume, you might as well stand in the middle of the avenue and shout: “Rich citizens of the city! Prepare to be bashed over the head and shaken like apple trees!”

William Covington Hanover would never make such an exhibition of himself. An Englishman valued subtlety; a Yank wanted spectacle. As if this city didn’t have enough spectacle. The Morningstarr Tower, for one. The Liberty Statue. The oddly named Underway, a dizzying nest of above- and belowground trolleys whose workings were so mysterious that only members of a secret guild were permitted to mind the system. The rich kept their horses and carriages just for show.

At that moment, William Covington Hanover would have been grateful for a ride in a carriage or on the Underway, as Miss Ava Oneal seemed determined to march the entire length of the island of Manhattan this cold winter’s evening. Or perhaps she simply wanted to finish her book. The newspapers said she was a very smart young lady; Miss Morningstarr met Miss Oneal while both were working at a hospital for sick orphans and hired the girl on the spot. William Covington Hanover couldn’t imagine why either lady would waste her time on sick people, let alone orphans. Not shocking that someone eventually burned down that hospital.

But in addition to being smart, William was irritated to note, Miss Oneal was also a very brisk walker. William sighed and increased his pace, taking only a moment to glare at a man with a face like a pickax, who was eyeing her with a little too much interest. The man took William’s measure and wisely retreated into the shadows.

Miss Ava Oneal walked another block and pivoted right. William trotted to keep up, turning the corner just as a coachman barked, a horse whickered, and another carriage full of ladies rumbled off to a midnight party. The sharp odor of fresh manure cut through the chill. Almost as suddenly, a round hatch opened in the middle of the street and two beetles crawled out—if beetles were the size of sheepdogs and made of shimmering, iridescent-green metal. The beetles skittered across the snow-frosted cobbles toward the pile of manure and, working together, packed the scattered pile into a neat, round ball. Then, one of the beetles turned around, and used its hind legs to roll the ball backward into the hatch. Both beetles vanished after the ball, and the hatch closed. The entire process took only a few moments.

William Covington Hanover had seen the Rollers many times, but he still wasn’t used to them. Unnatural, they were, those glittering, skittering machines. Another invention of the Morningstarrs: brother and sister, twins, geniuses. They had designed the shining Morningstarr Tower, the incandescent Starr Hotel. Built impossible bridges and the greenest of parks. Engineered the Underway. Paved the streets in strange, silvery cobblestones that somehow absorbed the power of the sun, spun shimmering window glass that did the same, and forged the Lion batteries that contained it all. Created all manner of Morningstarr Machines, including the Rollers that tidied the roads, mechanical snails that washed the windows, whirring dragonflies that did everything from drying shirts to cooling people in summer. For sixty-six years, the Morningstarrs performed architectural and mechanical wizardry to make New York City the most dazzling city in the world, or so New Yorkers claimed. And after seeing the gleaming metropolis of the future for himself, William begrudgingly had to agree. (Though he was certain Theodore, not Theresa, was the true genius behind all this invention, as ladies were much more suited to embroidering cushions and giggling at tall men.)

***

What do you think? Would you say all that description should count as showing because it’s in William’s head? I don’t really think so. “Her outfit was not the most remarkable thing about her” looks like a conclusion being handed to the reader to me. Ditto for “The rich kept their carriages just for show.” Saying someone is short is exactly the kind of thing writers are always being told is bad “telling,” because you should have the character walk under something without ducking or stand on a chair to reach a shelf or in some other way “show” she is short.

Also, different topic here, but who else laughed at the wonderful detail about the giant mechanical dung beetles? I did not see that coming. Can we go back in time and have someone invent all these things? This sounds like a fabulously ornate take on gaslamp fantasy. I should do a post on unexpected and wonderful details. Or on a books that open with what looks like an ordinary historical or contemporary setting and then suddenly go sideways.

Spoiler: This protagonist gets killed in a few more paragraphs. At least, I think he’s dead, and pretty sure we’re going to switch to a new pov protagonist. Raise your hand if you hate, hate, hate that structure. I’m intrigued by this opening because it’s hard to resist, but I’m still raising my hand because I really detest opening with a pov protagonist who then gets killed a couple of pages later. I don’t like that EVEN IF it’s an effective opening, which I think this is.

I’m sure some of you have read this book, and probably the whole trilogy. What did you think?

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6 thoughts on “Effective Novel Opening: Telling vs Showing”

  1. Raising my hand on hate, hate, hate a prologue where the POV character dies. When I started the second Freye Marske book and it happened AGAIN I never finished that book, and never started the third in the series.

    The distinction between telling and showing is making me think about your post trying to get ChatGPT to write a story. ChatGPT tells but doesn’t show, seems like.

    To me I think it’s a distinction between breadth and depth. Telling is giving you breadth, an overview of time or space or an individual. Showing is giving you depth, pinpointing specific details or incidents.

    But it does seem to blur together.

  2. I loved the trilogy (in spite of hating the prologue with a POV character who dies and who — IIRC — is not in the rest of the story) except for the ending, which used one of my pet peeves to wrap up, which tainted the whole trilogy for me. Otherwise it’s such a fun romp of a MG with tons of these unexpected sideways details.

    (Hello! I’ve been wrestling with a terrible case of burnout for two years and it’s made me not even want to read about others reading or writing. Hopefully I’m coming out the other side.)

  3. Good to hear opinions about the York trilogy.

    R. Morgan, that happened to me a while ago, and then I wrote TUYO, and whoa, that fixed that. I hope you pull out of it with something you enjoy writing as much as I loved TUYO.

  4. I keep coming back to that part about Finn’s nightmares. It says, “Finn had nightmares.” That’s definitely telling. But then it describes the ordinary nightmares and continues, “Now? He couldn’t close his eyes without seeing Roza’s slim hands slapping at fogged glass, the gleaming black SUV swallowed up by the gathering dark.”

    Is that telling? Well, it is and it isn’t, right? It’s showing because it’s descriptive and specific, but it’s telling because it hands the nightmare to the reader so succinctly (not as a scene of its own). But as a reader, I draw unspoken conclusions from this line (Rosa was important to Finn; Rosa was kidnapped; Finn was present). (I haven’t read Bone Gap. Just the beginning is haunting enough.)

    Nice exercise!

  5. Mona, yes, that’s what was causing me problems when I tried to decide how much of that was telling. I think this shows a kind of middle ground between telling and showing that isn’t widely recognized. Maybe we really do need a different term, such as “vivid telling” or something. I mean, if we want to talk about telling vs showing, and I guess sometimes we do, if only to say “Quite telling aspiring writers to avoid telling.”

    I really do recommend Bone Gap!

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