Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Show, Don't Tell

Every writing student has heard the rule that you should show, not tell, but this principle seems to be among the hardest for beginners to master. [...] Why is showing better? Two reasons. First, it creates mental pictures for the reader. [...]  Second, showing is interactive and participatory: it forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts [...] for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passively. (Robert J. Sawyer)

And apparently deducing facts may be very important in assisting identification with a character. Over at OnFiction Keith Oatley reports on the findings of Maria Kotovych, Peter Dixon, Marisa Bortolussi, and Mark Holden as outlined in "Textual determinants of a component of literary identification," Scientific Study of Literature, 1 (2011): 260-291.
Their idea is that just as when in conversation we make inferences about what the other person is thinking and feeling, so we do in coming to understand a character in a book. When we need to make such inferences we come to understand the character better, and can identify with that character more strongly.  [...]
Kotovych and her colleagues argue that the literary idea of identification is not well defined, and they concentrate on just one aspect of it, which they call "transparency:" the extent to which readers understand a character. In this first experiment the researchers found that the transparency of the narrator was greater for readers who read the story with the implicit preamble than for those who read the story with the explicit preamble. [...]

In a third experiment the authors used stories by different writers, and compared versions that used free-indirect speech and directly quoted speech. Free-indirect speech requires more inferences than directly quoted speech. Again they found more transparency of characters was achieved in the versions that required more inference. [...]

The idea that in coming to know a literary character we need to make inferences as we would with a real person, not just be told about the character, is a critical insight.

Photo by anilkuzhikala and made available via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Laura, I'll show my ignorance of academic conventions and confess I'd never heard of free indirect speech. Having looked it up, it seems to mean thoughts. Why not call it thought?

    Wikipedia isn't always reliable, but this is their example.
    Quoted or direct speech:

    He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. "And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?" he asked.

    Reported or normal indirect speech:

    He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.

    Free indirect speech:

    He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

    Example 1 is a character talking to himself, which is rarely good writing.

    Example 2 is a clunky version of 3, which is a thought.

    It seems to me that Free Indirect Speech can't be used in interaction with another sentient being, so it's of little use unless we have a very solitary protagonist, in which case it's still introspection, isn't it?

    Perhaps someone can explain it to me.

    I do agree about inference. One of the best examples I know is Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond chronicles where we are hardly ever in Lymond's head throughout 6 long books, but come to feel we know him intimately.



  2. Jo, I'm not sure if this is going to help (and I admit that I wasn't sure what "free indirect speech" was either), but the key thing about free indirect speech seems to be that it can mix the narrator's thoughts (and those of characters reporting on someone else's speech) with the actual words spoken, so the reader has to work out who said what, and how it's coloured by the potentially differing attitudes of (a) the original speaker (b) someone reporting on that speaker (c) perhaps also the narrator reporting on both. That's what I'm gleaning from this:

    The following example, cited by Page as showing ’the power of free indirect speech to embody dramatic elements within the flow of the narrative’, can also be seen as a reversion to a stylized Augustan satirical mode. Sir Walter has to be persuaded to rent Kellynch-hall:

    How Anne’s more rigid requisitions might have been taken, is of little consequence. Lady Russell’s had no success at all–could not be put up with–were not to be borne. ‘What! Every comfort of life knocked off! Journeys, London, servants, horses, table,–contractions and restrictions every where. To live no longer with the decencies even of a private gentleman! No, he would sooner quit Kellynch-hall at once, than remain in it on such disgraceful terms.’
    — Jane Austen, Persuasion

    The trick is to report actual phrases used, but ’indirectly’, so that the narration combines the voice and moral perspective of the original speaker with those of one or more reporting or narrating agents. (I think this explanation "is from Claude Rawson’s Introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion" and I found it here, where you can read a fuller discussion of the passage quoted here)

    Here's the definition from the Wiki for the International Society for the Study of Narrative:

    Free indirect speech, free indirect discourse involves both a character's speech and the narrator's comments or presentation, or direct discourse and indirect discourse. Famously utilized by James Joyce, free indirect discourse is a more comprehensive method of representation--one which many times makes indistinguishable the thoughts of the narrator and the thoughts of a character. Thus, the method typically privileges the past tense, yet cannot be discerned through merely grammatical indicators.


    "Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing room. He liked music but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something."

    -James Joyce, "The Dead"

  3. Laura, I'd question whether that last example was really Free Indirect, personally, whatever the Wiki might say. (Maybe the very last bit, but not really even that.)

    Free Indirect Discourse (FID) is not just a character thinking to themselves. It's actual dialogue expressed indirectly, as your quote suggested above: "The trick is to report actual phrases used, but 'indirectly', so that the narration combines the voice and moral perspective of the original speaker with those of one or more reporting or narrating agents."

    Austen uses it particularly for her non-sympathetic characters, so we "see" them talking, through the eyes of someone they're harming, or through the eyes of the condemnatory narrator. Basically, they reveal themselves through their dialogue, but do it indirectly, adding that extra layer of remove making them even less sympathetic.

    Austen also uses it to separate us from high emotion of the successful proposal scenes, none of which are told in direct dialogue.

    FID is mainly a satirical form, which is why Austen's so brilliant at it. In fact, people have claimed that Austen either invented it, or perfected something that had been invented but badly used by others. FID *requires* inference, as the study says, but it's rarely used on sympathetic characters.