EM Forster On Character: Novels Are For Telling


Aspects of the Novel

E.M. Forster, 1927

E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, A Room with a View, and Howards End, wrote a book about novels. It isn’t a how-to book, but you could use it as one. This isn’t for the beginning writer; it tackles questions such as “What is the purpose of the novel?” and “What is the relationship between character and plot?” Forster attacked these questions using his skills as a novelist, illustrating abstract ideas with concrete metaphors and poetic language. I haven’t finished it, but I can already tell it’s going to go on my short list of “books writers should read”. There’s a neat summary of chapters 2-5 here, and I’d guess the rest is summarized somewhere nearby in web-space. Forster’s writing is so good that it’s a shame to read just an outline, though.

He has two chapters on characters. The first of them presents a theory about characters that amounts to a theory about the purpose of the novel. Forster doesn’t see the novel and the play as alternative ways of telling a story. The distinctive thing about the novel, he says, is that the author can tell us what characters think and why they do things, and so we understand them better than we understand people, even ourselves, in real life. The purpose of the novel is to show (or pretend) that people make sense:

They are people whose secret lives are visible or might be visible: we are people whose secret lives are invisible.  And that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us; they suggest a more comprehensible and thus more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power.

He contrasts this with plays and movies, which he finds comparatively vulgar spectacles of incompletely-realized characters who are pushed around by a story-line that does not aspire to the level of a plot, but is merely a chronologically-ordered spectacle pulling the viewer along with “What next?” He argues in other chapters that most people want only an endless string of events that pique and then satisfy their curiosity, while a novel requires memory and thought, and so appeals to only a few:

A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan [a reference to 1001 Nights] or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by “and then—and then—” They can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.

Curiosity is one of the lowest of the human faculties…. The man who begins by asking you how many brothers and sisters you have is never a sympathetic character, and if you meet him in a year’s time he will probably ask you how many brothers and sisters you have, his mouth again sagging open, his eyes still bulging from his head.

Aristotle said that all emotion in a drama must be expressed through action. This brings us back to our old chestnut, “Show, Don’t Tell,” which also comes from Aristotle. We’ve had arguments over “show, don’t tell.” The greatest counterexample in drama is Shakespeare, who expresses most emotion in his dramas through dialogue, or even monologue. You could find many other counter-examples, like Death of a Salesman; you could point impishly to Waiting for Godot, in which emotion is expressed through inaction. Yesterday I saw A Raisin in the Sun, which is a good play but given to Shakespearian-length monologues, and so seems fake to ears more used to Tarantino.

But Forster ignores all this and cedes the point: “Show, Don’t Tell,” and the rest of Aristotle, is good for plays but bad for the novel. (He would perhaps say the telling plays listed above should have been novels. A literary realist certainly finds a stink of unreality about them, but on the other hand, the demand for realism in our artificial spectacles is a modern dogma.) Forster believes some stories should be plays or movies, and some should be novels, but none should be both:

The plot, instead of finding human beings more or less cut to its requirements, as they are in the drama, finds them enormous, shadowy and intractable, and three-quarters hidden like an iceberg. In vain it points out to these unwieldy creatures the advantages of the triple process of complication, crisis, and solution so persuasively expounded by Aristotle. A few of them rise and comply, and a novel which ought to have been a play is the result.

This leads to a surprising conclusion: Novels must tell, and not merely show. Showing is fine, but doesn’t enable an author to describe a character hyper-realistically, in more detail than is possible in life, and so a story that can be only shown, should be, as a play or a movie.

I don’t agree entirely. I think, first, that most things can be shown, given enough length. The novel doesn’t give us a qualitatively new way of looking at people so much as it makes it possible to condense a character, through telling, so that more can be said in fewer words. Today’s movie-makers have tricks Forster never saw in 1927 that let them convey a surprising depth of character visually. Forster’s contrast of drama with novels is so stark that it would make it impossible to make a movie from a novel, or a novel from a movie, since he says a novel requires a completely different kind of plot. When he wrote, there were no good movies made from books as far as I know, but today he’d have to say that Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Apocalypse Now, and all the critically-praised movies made from his own books, were bad.

The movies are different from the books. Apocalypse Now takes the themes of Heart of Darkness and expresses them in spectacle (surfing under artillery fire, choppers with loudspeakers blasting “Flight of the Valkyrie”). The sequence of events is entirely different, yet the plot is the same. A movie has to take a different route, but might end up at the same place.

Second, even when you’re showing, not telling, words can focus more precisely and nimbly than a camera. You might have a story that has to be completely shown, not told, yet it would have been difficult in a movie. A movie could show a sunrise photo-realistically, but couldn’t as easily romanticize it, and couldn’t direct the viewer’s attitude through word choice. Did Mirkwood and Moria seem more threatening in the book, or in the movie?

Later, Forster argues that the requirement to bring things to a conclusion might possibly also not be needed in a novel, and ruins most novels because the characters are too much alive for the writer to rein them in at the conclusion. He didn’t know how to do without it. He described a recent French novel which had different subplots that resolved independently, in a very self-conscious, meta-fiction way that he didn’t say was a general solution, but at least showed the thing could be done. This foreshadows the contemporary literary short story, which is not allowed to have a conclusion, but comes to a kind of resting place instead.

ROF1. A General Evolutionary Theory Of Fiction


What’s a story?

“Story” is a very broad category, even when counting only fiction. It includes:

– nonsense stories that are supposed to be stupid and make no sense:

One fine day in the middle of the night,Two dead boys got up to fight.

Back to back they faced each other,

Drew their swords and shot each other.

A deaf policeman heard the noise,

Came and killed the two dead boys.

– meta-fiction (stories about stories), like Borges’ stories that are literary analyses of imaginary stories (“Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote” is my favorite)

– ancient Greek rape comedies [h]

Goodnight, Moon

– Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra

Waiting for Godot, a story about nothing happening

– this story from the infancy gospel of Thomas:

After that again he went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: Thou shalt not finish thy course. And immediately the child fell down and died. … And the parents of him that was dead came unto Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Thou that hast such a child canst not dwell with us in the village: or do thou teach him to bless and not to curse: for he slayeth our children. And Joseph called the young child apart and admonished him, saying: Wherefore doest thou such things, that these suffer and hate us and persecute us? But Jesus said: I know that these thy words are not thine: nevertheless for thy sake I will hold my peace: but they shall bear their punishment. And straightway they that accused him were smitten with blindness.

I don’t believe there are rules about what kinds of fictional narratives can be set down as text and appreciated. Anything goes. So what am I talking about when I talk about rules of fiction?

A general evolutionary theory of fiction

I think people have evolved cognitive dog-treat-recognizers, things in their brains that give them little jolts of pleasure for doing things that tend to get their genes propagated. When we read fiction, we get these doggy treats even for things we didn’t do ourselves. [1]

The evolutionary explanation for erotica is obvious: People enjoy sex. (I don’t know why there isn’t food porn, too.) Bashing your opponent on the head gives you a different kind of jolt of pleasure. Action stories are efficient structures that give you jolts of pleasure at bashing other people on the head without suffering the (culturally-specific) jolts of guilt that prevent people from bashing each other on the head all the time.

“Dramatic” stories play on the reader’s emotional bonds to the characters. This requires a complicated story structure to build up these bonds, then yank on them so you react as if these things were happening to your friends.

Dramatic stories are like roller-coasters. Roller coaster design has rules. Some are engineering: The track has to go up before it can go down. Some have to do with what patterns of tension and release feel dramatic: You need to cluster small, fast curves and loops together; you need to have moments of respite between these clusters.

None of the examples I listed at the start of this post are dramatic, except for the rape comedies. So drama isn’t found in all fiction. But it’s in a hell of a lot of fiction. Drama is the backbone behind most good stories. It’s what you feel when something is at stake and you care what happens. When people say stories must have conflict, or that there must be two false climaxes followed by a climax and resolution, or that a play or movie must have a three-act structure, they’re talking about dramatic stories. If you read Syd Field, Jack Bickham, or Writer’s Digest, you’re going to get theories of dramatic structure. Most of what is written about how to write novels and movie scripts, is written as if conflict-based dramatic stories were the only kind of story. So they’re a pretty important class of stories! [2]

BUT. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of sets of “rules” about dramatic stories, or “basic plots” of dramatic stories. They’re… helpful, maybe. But most of them just address the plot: What sequence of events happen in a story? They’re stuff like this:

1.        Once upon a time there was …
2.        Every day …
3.        One day …
4.        Because of that …
5.        Because of that …
6.        Until finally …

What’s the point of that? You’d have to really work at it to write a story that didn’t fit that structure. I want to understand what my brain is looking for when deciding whether to give me a mental doggy treat. Knowing a hundred slightly different plot sequences that trigger it is a good start, but we can do better.

“Literature” is, I’m gonna say for the moment, stories that make you think about things outside of the story. In my mind, Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy, while Lord of the Rings is fantasy and literature. Twelfth Night is (bad) romance. Romeo and Juliet is (bad) romance, and literature. 2001 is science fiction. Brave New World is science fiction and literature. If you read Aristotle or Dramatica theory, you’re going to be reading about how stories make you think.

Literary stories, I think, reward you for learning. They’re simulations that teach you what might happen if you do one thing in some set of circumstances. The dog-treat mechanism in your head drives you to seek literary lessons that tackle the questions currently important to you. This may account for the strange fact that there are specific story types that many people love and many other people think are stupid.

So stories don’t serve any single function. There are as many broad, top-level story types as there are evolved patterns of experience that trigger mental doggy treats, and a good story will trigger lots of them. But a few top-level story types are very general and very important, and I want to understand them better. If our more-specific theories about how stories work mate well with the top-level evolutionary justification, it’s a sign that we may be onto something.

A general evolutionary theory of popular bad fiction

The brain doesn’t expect your experiences to be fictional. So it gives you a reward even when you’re just imagining someone else having these experiences. An ape gets a big jolt of relief or exhilaration for outwitting a predator or enemy, and that’s fine, because that doesn’t happen much in the wild. But your brain wasn’t informed that you can sit down at B. Dalton’s and read trashy novels and make it give you that jolt every ten minutes, for things that don’t benefit your genes at all.

Some “popular but bad” story types might be ones that fool your brain into thinking it’s succeeding or learning when it isn’t. Nonsense stories, for example, are bad baby literature. Babies learn fastest by looking at things they haven’t seen before. They get cognitive dog treats for looking at anything surprising, even if it’s surprising just because it’s really stupid. Nonsense stories don’t help anybody learn anything, but because they’re full of things that don’t make sense, they keep triggering your brain’s reward for paying attention to things that you don’t understand yet.

Even stories that benefit you some way can be “junk stories” if you indulge in them too much. In a world where we can seek out exactly the kind of food we want, we end up eating too much fat, salt, and sugar. In a world where we can seek out exactly the kind of story experience we want, we end up reading “too much” (from the perspective of our genes) of certain kinds of stories.

So I expect successful stories to include “good good stories” that reward you for confronting things in fiction that help you or your genes in real life, “junk food stories” that we over-indulge in because they give us big rewards for things that don’t happen very often in real life, and “good bad stories” that reward you for mentally jacking off [α].


h. A Greek rape comedy is a once-popular story type in which a young man prepares to marry a young women who, unknown to him, was recently raped. When he realizes she’s pregnant, he must cast her off as a shamed woman. But then it turns out that he was the man who raped her, so it’s okay. Everybody has a good laugh and they get married and live happily ever after. (This summary is a  little unfair to the Greeks, since they didn’t have a concept of, or at least a word for, rape. On the other hand, that in itself is another indictment of them.)

1. Transhumans will of course evolve brains smart enough to distinguish real experiences from fictional ones, and to reward them only for real ones. They will therefore no longer enjoy fiction.

2. It’s hard (maybe impossible) to distinguish between drama and tension. Dramatic structure, whether it’s 3-act theory or scene and sequel structure, can be used to create drama, but it can also be used in action movies where we arguably don’t care much about the characters, like Crank.

α. Not that jacking off is bad. Or using birth control. You don’t always gotta do what your genes want you to. Usually, your genes are looking out for you. But plenty of stories are designed to teach you altruistic lessons that are good for your genes, or your society, to your detriment!

Why I’m About To “No true Scotsman” You


Wikipedia says,

When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim (“no Scotsman would do such a thing”), rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule (“no true Scotsman would do such a thing”).

And yet, I am about to “No true Scotsman” all over you. I’m looking for objective rules about what makes a story a story. “No true Scotsman” is a fallacy when you have a rule saying who is and who is not a Scotsman. When you don’t have the objective rules, and you’re arguing about what they are, you can’t reference them.

Say you’re on the Olympic committee that decides what should and should not be an Olympic sport. The question of the biathlon comes up. One might suggest that, as there are already individual events for skiing and marksmanship, they should not be combined into a single sport unless all possible combinations of two single-event Olympics sports are also recognized as Olympic sports. Or one might suggest that a military training exercise is not the same thing as a sport. Or the question of curling comes up, and one might object that to be an Olympic sport, for an international competition, a sport should be practiced in more than one nation. Or one might say that a true Olympic sport should not make observers fall down laughing, or should not be something done to pass the time while drinking beer.

You wouldn’t accuse the Olympic committee member of committing the “no true Scotsman” fallacy (unless, perhaps, you were a biathlete). She’s just trying to do her job. She has to look at the set of sports, and the set of recognized Olympic sports, and try to figure out what distinguishes Olympic sports.

Similarly, I’m going to look at stories, and try to figure out what distinguishes “proper” stories. I already believe there are rules to these things, because I see so many regularities in stories. The properties of stories are not distributed randomly! But even supposing that there are rules, I still expect people, in their error-prone ways, to write and publish many “improper” stories that don’t fit the rules. So if you can point to a story published inThe Youth’s Companion in 1902 that breaks my rule, I don’t care. I’ll No True Scotsman it without a second thought. I expect to find fake Scotsman all over the place. I wouldn’t be too dismayed if most published stories broke my rules, as long as most of the great stories observe them.

In fact, a rule that’s followed by great stories and broken by lots of not-so-great stories is better than a rule broken by no stories at all! A rule broken by no stories at all (say, “A story must contain at least 2 different letters of the alphabet”) is useless. I want rules that help me avoid making mistakes that I might have made, not mistakes I wouldn’t consider making.

Everything I Needed To Know About Life, I Learned From Supervillains


I wanted to refer to my reblog of “Everything I Needed To Know About Life, I Learned From Supervillains” in a PM to someone. But it looks like I never wrote it.

Everything I Needed To Know About Life, I Learned From Supervillains

is an awesome blog post by PJ Eby, author, self-improvement guru, & LessWrongian, on his blog, DirtSimple.org . I can’t improve on it; I’ll just quote part of it:

In the movies, the villains typically:

– Have a vision and goals, for how they’d like things to be in the future

– Believe that they deserve — and are capable of obtaining — everything they want in life

– Proactively seek the fulfillment of their goals, and persistently work towards achieving them

– Are willing to plan and prepare for years, then execute that plan in a well-disciplined manner, having anticipated as many issues as possible, with well-thought out contingency plans

– Are very willing to delegate most tasks to their staff of loyal, highly-motivated employees…  who they somehow managed to recruit, train, and persuade to follow along with their shared vision.

Meanwhile, the heroes tend to:

– Be reactive, rather then proactive — they wait until something bad happens, then try to solve the problem afterwards

– Be reactionary, rather than progressive — they try to put things back the way they were, instead of changing them for the better

– Rarely promote a shared vision, preferring to work alone or with only a partner or two…  who they don’t trust with anything really important!

– Rarely anticipate the possible failure modes of their plans, to the extent that they plan anything at all!

– Use their talents and abilities rarely, for emergencies only, instead of keeping them in top condition or proactively using them to improve things

– Not believe they personally deserve anything good out of life, or that things will ever get better for them

… I didn’t really think all that much about it, until this past week.  It just seemed like an amusing, cynical observation about Hollywood: that movies are designed to make people feel better about their crappy lives, by allowing them to subconsciously identify with the “good” guys.

But that was only because I didn’t realize just how much this applied to me.

Or that on the inside, I was still trying to be the hero.

And that it was perhaps the single biggest source of pain in my entire life!

What’s good about being special?  “I’m better than everyone.”  What’s good about that?

– If I’m a hero, I won’t get hurt

– If I’m a hero, it’s okay that I’m alone or have few friends

– If I’m a hero, it’s okay that people look down on me, because that’s just my secret identity

– If I’m a hero, I’m strong on the inside, even if I seem weak on the outside

– If I’m a hero, it’s okay for me to strike at those who hurt others, the way they hurt me

All in all, the superhero fantasy was more attractive to my 7-year-old self (the approximate age where these thoughts originated) than I’d ever realized.  And consciously, it had never even occurred to me that they were anything but idle daydreams and escape fantasies.

I had no way of knowing that, when I adopted this superhero ideal, the following personality traits would come along with it:

– If you’re a hero, you’re just strong and successful and equipped… automatically — you don’t have to practice or work out or really do anything at all to become successful (Impatience with details and implementation)

– If you’re a hero, you should never use your powers (talents and abilities) for any personal gain…  unless it’s an emergency.  (Procrastination, not to mention failure to pursue non-work goals)

– If you’re a hero, it’s your job to right wrongs…  not to make good things.  (Perfectionism!)

– If you’re a hero, it’s your job to do the impossible, or at least the extraordinary…  so leave the ordinary things to ordinary people  (More perfectionism, not to mention elitism!)

– If you’re a hero, you have to rely on yourself…  so don’t share your secrets with anyone, or expect anyone to be able to help you with your problems…  frankly, it’s laughable that they’d be able to understand your issues, let alone help.  (Arrogance, closed-mindedness, and other a**holery)

– If you’re a hero, everything is serious business.  Deadly serious.  All the frickin’ time.  You can enjoy other people being happy, but don’t expect to have any free time that can’t be interrupted for something more important.  (Recipe for struggle, suffering, and general life imbalance.)

The post goes into more depth on how this subverted his attempts at self-improvement. I don’t know if his course or books or whatever it is he’s flogging are good, but I think this post is brilliant.

My Favorite First Sentences


I read a short story online recently that I loved but I noticed the first two sentences were the weakest sentences in the story–a grave mistake; those are the sentences you must hone to perfection above all others, except perhaps the last.

Then I remembered that I don’t do that.

Some first sentences I love:

There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
– C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Humor and rapid characterization.  “Almost” hints at mercy, and at the redemption of Eustace that is to come.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
– William Gibson, Neuromancer

Tells you so much about its high-tech, gray-souled world.

Mama died today.  Or maybe it was yesterday.
– Albert Camus, The Stranger

The speaker has a good reason for not knowing, but his ignorance and lack of concern foreshadows the fact that he’s a sociopath.

True! – nervous – very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
– Ed Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart

The stacatto pace, the broken and inverted grammatical structure, and, oh, yes, the denial of madness, hint at the speaker’s madness.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed after him.
– Stephen King, The Gunslinger

The man in black is probably evil.  The gunslinger probably represents justice, or retribution.  There will be a chase.  There will be blood.  It will be black and white and red, not shades of gray.  It will not be made pretty with flowery prose.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The description of part of the galaxy as “unfashionable” tells us that the galaxy, interstellar travel, all that, is old hat, and this story doesn’t give a damn about spaceships and ray guns except as tools for moving people long distances rapidly and killing them efficiently.  Its prominence and idiocy tells us this is a universe (or galaxy, at any rate) populated by silly, shallow people.  “Uncharted” tells us it is not written from the perspective of humans.  “Unregarded” tells us that no one in the universe will take us (or the protagonist) seriously.

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its Outer Walls.  They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbor until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the Great Walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock.
– Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

This is wrong, but catchy:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

These two sentences seem to be designed to make us uncomfortable. And that’s its power. For those who haven’t read this book the first chapter is a first person narrative from the POV of Kurt Vonnegut himself and the actual story doesn’t start until chapter 2. It’s Vonnegut telling us that we are reading a story and I think that was both an unusual and bold choice because generally, as readers, we want to forget that we are reading a novel. Vonnegut wants to unmoor us from our expectations of fiction (much like Billy Pilgrim was umoored from time).

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.
—Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

The first line establishes Huck’s humility.  The second is a humorous jab at its own author, and suggests Huck himself (being written by Twain) is about to stretch the truth some, and suggests that Twain’s books are “the truth, mainly,” despite being about fictional characters.  It also hints that Huck isn’t hung up on the exact literal truth, because he’s a deep thinker, and he understands after his adventure that there’s no such thing.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)

Just kidding.  I hate this sentence.

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.
– Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
—Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

The strangeness of this quote hints at the surrealism of life under the arbitrary, relentless, mindless tyranny of the Chinese communist party.

The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth the effort.
– Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.
– William Goldman, The Princess Bride

This was buried around page 40, but should have opened the book:

There was a footpath leading across the fields to New Southgate, and I used to go there alone to watch the sunset and contemplate suicide. I did not, however, commit suicide, because I wished to know more of mathematics.
– Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (1951)

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Shut up, Joyce.

What are your favorite first sentences?

When Only To Show


Sometimes you shouldn’t “tell” at all. Hemingway and Elmore Leonard want their protagonists to be “manly” and not show external feelings, so they use little telly language.

Here’s a different but common reason not to tell. This is a long passage from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, end of part 2, with lots of body language and almost no “telling” at all. After it, I’ll give my opinion on why that is. (There is a spoiler at the end of the passage.)

I have to qualify that in two ways. First, there is telling. John Singer complains “furiously” and is “beside himself” when the slot machine doesn’t work. The humidity oppresses him, and he has a headache. But these things are indirect. He isn’t furious because of the slot machine, or because of the heat, and you need to figure out why he has a headache. This is similar to what Mystic calls “Implication outside the initial scope.” You need to figure out what deeper feeling caused these feelings.

Second, there’s a continuum from telling to showing. Categorizing things into “showing” and “telling” is a simplification. Maybe I’ll post on that later, with examples.

And, yeah, she uses “listlessly” too often.

I changed the “telly” speech tag from maroon to brown, so you can distinguish it from adverbs, which in this passage are not very telly. Key:


red = adverb
brown = “telly” language


yellow/green = sensory language that describes Singer’s feelings in a non-telly way
lavender = body language

For comparison with other annotated passages:

green = simile or metaphor
blue = an adjective, adverb, or verb that isn’t literally correct (metaphorical)

At the asylum he sought Antonapoulos first in the sick ward where he had been confined before. But at the doorway of the room he saw immediately that his friend was not there. Next he found his way through the corridors to the office where he had been taken the time before. He had his question already written on one of the cards he carried about with him. The person behind the desk was not the same as the one who had been there before. He was a young man, almost a boy, with a half-formed, immature face and a lank mop of hair. Singer handed him the card and stood quietly, his arms heaped with packages, his weight resting on his heels.

The young man shook his head. He leaned over the desk and scribbled loosely on a pad of paper. Singer read what he had written and the spots of color drained from his cheekbones instantly. He looked at the note a long time, his eyes cut sideways and his head bowed. For it was written there that Antonapoulos was dead.

On the way back to the hotel he was careful not to crush the fruit he had brought with him. He took the packages up to his room and then wandered down to the lobby. Behind a potted palm tree there was a slot machine. He inserted a nickel but when he tried to pull the lever he found that the machine was jammed. Over this incident he made a great to-do. He cornered the clerk and furiously demonstrated what had happened. His face was deathly pale and he was so beside himself that tears rolled down the ridges of his nose. He flailed his hands and even stamped once with his long, narrow, elegantly shoed foot on the plush carpet. Nor was he satisfied when his coin was refunded, but insisted on checking out immediately. He packed his bag and was obliged to work energetically to make it close again. For in addition to the articles he had brought with him he carried away three towels, two cakes of soap, a pen and a bottle of ink, a roll of toilet paper, and a Holy Bible. He paid his bill and walked to the railway station to put his belongings in custody. The train did not leave until nine in the evening and he had the empty afternoon before him.

This town was smaller than the one in which he lived. The business streets intersected to form the shape of a cross. The stores had a countrified look; there were harnesses and sacks of feed in half of the display windows. Singer walked listlessly along the sidewalks. His throat felt swollen and he wanted to swallow but was unable to do so. To relieve this strangled feeling he bought a drink in one of the drugstores.

He idled in the barber shop and purchased a few trifles at the ten-cent store. He looked no one full in the face and his head drooped down to one side like a sick animal’s.

The afternoon was almost ended when a strange thing happened to Singer. He had been walking slowly and irregularly along the curb of the street. The sky was overcast and the air humid. Singer did not raise his head, but as he passed the town pool room he caught a sidewise glance of something that disturbed him. He passed the pool room and then stopped in the middle of the street. Listlessly he retraced his steps and stood before the open door of the place. There were three mutes inside and they were talking with their hands together. All three of them were coatless. They wore bowler hats and bright ties. Each of them held a glass of beer in his left hand. There was a certain brotherly resemblance between them.

Singer went inside. For a moment he had trouble taking his hand from his pocket. Then clumsily he formed a word of greeting. He was clapped on the shoulder. A cold drink was ordered. They surrounded him and the fingers of their hands shot out like pistons as they questioned him.

He told his own name and the name of the town where he lived. After that he could think of nothing else to tell about himself. He asked if they knew Spiros Antonapoulos. They did not know him. Singer stood with his hands dangling loose.

His head was still inclined to one side and his glance was oblique. He was so listless and cold that the three mutes in the bowler hats looked at him queerly. After a while they left him out of their conversation. And when they had paid for the rounds of beers and were ready to depart they did not suggest that he join them.

Although Singer had been adrift on the streets for half a day he almost missed his train. It was not clear to him how this happened or how he had spent the hours before. He reached the station two minutes before the train pulled out, and barely had time to drag his luggage aboard and find a seat. The car he chose was almost empty. When he was settled he opened the crate of strawberries and picked them over with finicky care.

The berries were of a giant size, large as walnuts and in full-blown ripeness. The green leaves at the top of the rich-colored fruit were like tiny bouquets. Singer put a berry in his mouth and though the juice had a lush, wild sweetness there was already a subtle flavor of decay. He ate until his palate was dulled by the taste and then rewrapped the crate and placed it on the rack above him. At midnight he drew the window-shade and lay down on the seat. He was curled in a ball, his coat pulled over his face and head. In this position he lay in a stupor of half-sleep for about twelve hours. The conductor had to shake him when they arrived.

Singer left his luggage in the middle of the station floor. Then he walked to the shop. He greeted the jeweler for whom he worked with a listless turn of his head. When he went out again there was something heavy in his pocket For a while he rambled with bent head along the streets. But the unrefracted brilliance of the sun, the humid heat, oppressed him. He returned to his room with swollen eyes and an aching head. After resting he drank a glass of iced coffee and smoked a cigarette. Then when he had washed the ash tray and the glass he brought out a pistol from his pocket and put a bullet in his chest.

(I marked “wild sweetness” as non-literal because wild strawberries are not sweet at all, so presumably the author is trying to convey something else with that word.)

The author (Carson McCullers, a mere 23 years old when she wrote this) doesn’t tell us how Singer feels because Singer doesn’t know how he feels. Exploring feelings that we don’t understand and can’t name is one of the main purposes of literature. One mark of great fiction is showing characters have feelings that there are no words for. For this, you usually need to show rather than tell. At any rate, you can’t tell it with a single word. You must be indirect.

So most great stories need sections that show but don’t tell, often (like here) at the climax. Causation doesn’t run the other way, though: Showing but not telling doesn’t make something great. If you want to tell us that Bill is sleepy, and you show us instead, that’s no great improvement. But if you want to convey that Bill feels something that there are no words for, you have to show us.

Show & Tell 2: Extreme telling


Excerpts from four of the most-famous plays in English, all pure telling.

A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine HansberryAct I, Scene 2

MAMA:  You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity to… Now here come you and Benetha–talking ’bout things we ain’t never even thought about hardly, me and your daddy. You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar–You my children–but how different we done become.

Act III, Scene 1

WALTER: Talking ’bout life, Mama. You all always telling me to see life like it is. Well–I laid in there on my back today… and I figured it out. Life just like it is. Who gets and who don’t get. Mama, you know it’s all divided up. Life is. Sure enough. Between the takers and the “tooken.” I’ve figured it out finally. Yeah. Some of us always getting “tooken.” People like Willy Harris, they don’t never get “tooken.” And you know why the rest of us do? ‘Cause we all mixed up. Mixed up bad. We get to looking ’round for the right and the wrong; and we worry about it and cry about it and stay up nights trying to figure out ’bout the wrong and the right of things all the time… And all the time, man, them takers is out there operating, just taking and taking.


Death of a Salesman, Arthur MillerAct I

WILLY: Bernard is not well liked, is he?

BIFF: He’s liked, but he’s not well liked.

HAPPY: That’s right, Pop.

WILLY: That’s just what I mean, Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. “Willy Loman is here!” That’s all they have to know, and I go right through.

LINDA:  Then make Charley your father, Biff. You can’t do that, can you? I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person. You called him crazy–

BIFF: I didn’t mean–

LINDA: No, a lot of people think he’s lost his–balance. But you don’t have to be very smart to know what his trouble is. The man is exhausted.

HAPPY: Sure!

LINDA: A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man. He works for a company thirty-six years this March, opens up unheard-of territories to their trademark, and now in his old age they take his salary away.

HAPPY: I didn’t know that, Mom.

LINDA: You never asked, my dear! Now that you get your spending money someplace else you don’t trouble your mind with him.

BIFF: Those ungrateful bastards!

LINDA: Are they any worse than his sons? When he brought them business, when he was young, they were glad to see him. But now his old friends, the old buyers that loved him so and always found some order to hand him in a pinch–they’re all dead, retired. He used to be able to make six, seven calls a day in Boston. Now he takes his valises out of the car and puts them back and takes them out again and he’s exhausted. Instead of walking he talks now. He drives seven hundred miles, and when he gets there no one knows him any more, no one welcomes him. And what goes through a man’s mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent? Why shouldn’t he talk to himself? Why? When he has to go to Charley and borrow fifty dollars a week and pretend to me that it’s his pay? How long can that go on? How long? You see what I’m sitting here and waiting for? And you tell me he has no character? The many who never worked a day but for your benefit? When does he get the medal for that? Is this his reward–to turn around at the age of sixty-three and find his sons, who he loved better than his life, one a philandering bum–


Act II

BIFF: And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is!

WILLY:  I hear that!

LINDA:  Don’t Biff!

BIFF: It’s goddam time you heard that!  I had to be boss big shot in two weeks, and I’m through with it!

WILLY:  Then hang yourself!  For spite, hang yourself!

BIFF:  No! Nobody’s hanging himself, Willy! I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped, you hear me? And in the middle of that office building, do you hear this? I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw–the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can’t I say that, Willy?

WILLY:  The door of your life is wide open!

BIFF:  Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!

WILLY:  I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!

BIFF:  I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! … Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?


King LearAct I, scene 2

EDMUND:  Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law

My services are bound. Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit

The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true,

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,

Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,

Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:

Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund

As to the legitimate: fine word, — legitimate!

Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,

And my invention thrive, Edmund the base

Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:

Now, gods, stand up for bastards!


HAMLET:  Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’

‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play:

But I have that within which passeth show;

These but the trappings and the suits of woe

(But note Hamlet is making a point about King Claudius’ lack of true feeling.)

Act 2 scene 2

HAMLET:  I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation

prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king

and queen moult no feather. I have of late — but

wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth, forgone all

custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily

with my disposition that this goodly frame, the

earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most

excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave

o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted

with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to

me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!

how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how

express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the

world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,

what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not

me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling

you seem to say so.