Show, Tell… Bestsellers Break Rules

I recently read The Boys from Biloxi by John Grisham. I mostly enjoyed it, but it also frustrated me.

Grisham breaks the rules like there weren’t any. He tells, he doesn’t show. Very little dialogue, just tell, tell, tell.

Why does he get away with it? Two reasons:

  1. He’s a bestselling author, one the of the biggest. Why?
  2. Because he tells an incredible story.
Fill my eyes, not my ears.

Biloxi swept through decades and characters. To show it would have made it as long as one of Stephen King’s bigger books. It’s an odd experience reading his tales. Had he shown them, I would have hated some characters. It would have been an emotional read. Instead, it’s more akin to an intellectual read where you ask, “What’s he going to do next?”

Truthfully, it reads more like a really, really long synopsis. Yet the story is so good that movies made from it (show, show, show), work well.

This is poignant to me because I recently read a submission that was a great story, but came off more like an oral history of interest to family, not to general readers. YET I LOVED THE STORY. I loved the characters. I could see at least three novelized books come from this, maybe four. It hurt to say no to this author, but I truly hope she takes a whack at novelizing it.

Had she been a bestseller, with a little shaping, this book would be acceptable. But first you have to show.

In John Grisham’s first book, A Time to Kill, he still tells, but with much less narrative distance. Somehow, he succeeds in emotionalizing telling. Another key to Grisham’s success, as I’ve said before on this blog, is that he writes about lawyers, making them unlikable. We all like to dislike lawyers.

Telling is, “What happens next?” Showing is, “What will I feel next?”

Consider this example:

Telling: Jake’s soup was hot. He told his wife to turn the down the heat.

Showing: Jake lifted a spoonful of steaming soup. “I just want to talk about your spending,” he said, then put the spoon in his mouth. Heat set his tongue on fire. Spitting the molten soup out, he shouted, “What? Are you trying to kill me!”

Showing takes longer, but you feel what Jake is going through (and probably his wife!)

Commitment to Story

I love a good disaster movie. And some bad ones. The Core is a sci-fi disaster movie that practices really bad science. The 60% of critics who hated it, though, admitted to having a soft spot for the movie.

I’ve watched The Core half-a-dozen times.

There’s a good reason for that soft spot and it is commitment. Every actor, every beat, is committed to the believability of the science. Sure the science was bogus, so much so, that it was almost fantasy.

A novel is similar to this. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has horrible symbology and Christology, but the characters believe it, the internal consistency is rock solid even though the reality is completely off.

Oddly, there are people, such as Dustin Hoffman, who are championing scientific accuracy in sci-fi movies. That would write off Star Trek, Star Wars, and just about every other sci-fi film.

Story is about being believable, even when it’s not remotely believable. It’s why fantasy, which has no rules, must have consistent rules impressed upon it. One of the reasons Harry Potter is so successful is that the magic rules aren’t broken (or so I’m told; I haven’t read it).

The most common trope is the unheard, unknown scientist with crackpot theories that are borne out to be accurate. Then The Man, normally the military or politicians, tries to squash the “truth” before being persuaded. This is a welcome trope because the maverick scientist is always a unique, conflicted character. Anyone who disagrees with the scientist is the bad guy, which reinforces of the story truth. Then again, when they have to accept the story truth.

The scientist may question himself, but he/she is proven correct in systematic fashion. Then, with all of science in question, the odd-ball team is assembled, and the planet is saved.

Star Trek works because the characters took it seriously. It wasn’t campy (like Lost in Space), or tongue in cheek (like Orville), the actors believed they lived in that world, and all choices were made to reinforce that world, first with the tech of the ’60s, then with better and better effects.

Even if your story isn’t sci-fi or fantasy, we have to believe in your world, and that takes commitment, clear rules, and consistency.

Are you committed to your story?

Hypocracy

We, as a people, are against gun violence, but our stories, particularly video, are replete with unrepentant gun violence.

A popular show has a female teacher “involved” with a 15-year-old boy student. No consequences except loss of job, whereas if the genders were reversed, that teacher would be in jail.

The normalization of teen sex.

All of these things are things we should be against, even the last one, though some aren’t.

I firmly believe any subject can be written about, however immoral things should not be normalized, glorified, or gratuitous/graphic.

There are pervs in this world who think all the above things are just ducky. Pervs will be pervs and 1st Amendment rights cover even them to a degree.

But as a writer, and a reader, be true to your better angels. Sometimes you need to listen to outer angles, too, when yours are silent or flat out wrong.

Not every book should be a moral teacher, but by the end of the book, you should be in accord with your beliefs and principles. That doesn’t mean, if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, et al, that every book of yours must preach your religion. I’d suggest it shouldn’t go against the tenets you believe in, though.

Do you agree or disagree? Discuss.

I’ve Even Noticed It In Myself

Reading has always been my favorite pastime. Fiction was my first love and while I know non-fiction is important, it never quite captured my heart. I read so much as a kid that if I gave you the numbers, you’d assume I was exaggerating.

Today, it seems like there are fewer readers. Book sales across the world are still high, but do people read them?

Social media is so much easier. Short, personal, often amusing, but does that leave room for long forms, such as books?

I admit, my reading time has drastically reduced. Between work, family, projects, and writing, I haven’t had time to read novels.

Moving into a home in the mountains of Colorado, we made the delightful discovery that the previous owner had left bookshelves of novels and non-fiction (beds, dressers, couches, and more, as well).

Not our bookshelf, but cool anyway

Internet is a bit spotty at night, so I’ve combed through the books and selected a pile to consume. It was like coming back to a long-lost friend.

Blogs count as social media, so if you’re reading this, when was the last time you read a book, fiction or non-fiction?

The funny thing is, reading ability doesn’t atrophy when not used for a while. Go ahead, pick up a book. If it’s well written, you’ll get pulled through as easy as breathing.

And you’ll be glad you did.

All our books fit that bill, so feel free to peruse them. But start reading again, you’ll be so glad you did.

The Joy of Completion

As a publisher with a full-time job on the side, a family, two large dogs, and a penchant for procrastination, completing the penultimate draft of a book is a time for celebration.

I said “yay” and sent it off to my editor. Considering we’re preparing to sell our house and move across the country, she has a lot of time to pour over it and mark it up. That’s a bitter-sweet email. Open for correction (my favorite thing, ask my wife).

What do you do when you complete your book? Writing or reading, we’re not picky. Is it time for chocolate? Bourbon? A night on the town? Or all of the above?

Thoughts?

Celebration is important for a lot of our life. I highly recommend it, but celebrate responsibly.

Look for “The Trouble with Bees” a time travel yarn for the YA audience later in the year. I hope. Maybe 2023, but no, I really think 2022. Just no promises.

What delays your book? Besides PIckle Ball, that is. (Yes, it’s an in-joke. Someone will snort and then wince because the snort hurt her arm.)

A unique publisher who is Author-Centric and Reader-Sensitive