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!)

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