Sunday, August 07, 2016

Know the Rules, Break the Rules

You know how you're supposed to show, not tell?  I've read a couple of really tell-y pieces lately, and I've been thinking about when it works and when it doesn't.

The primary example is The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, which is an amazing and hilarious book and you should really read it because of how fun it is.  It's a book with a lot of telling, which works for a couple of very good reasons.  Right now I'm reading the sequel, Stiletto, which is also hilarious and fun (though not quite as great as the original, and I have thoughts on that subject, too), but the telling really sticks out in this book--I don't think I noticed how telly The Rook was until I noticed it about Stiletto.

The things that the two books share that helps them work are the worldbuilding and the humor.  The premise of both book sis that there is a top secret government agency that deals with supernatural emergencies in England.  This is not a new trope, but the level of detail that O'Malley brings to the history and bureaucracy of the government organization is a nerdy delight.  It's not just what's happening to the characters that's fun--even the history books about this organization are fascinating.

It's also hilarious--the dry British voice discussing the weather and the impending end of the world was just so steadfast and matter-of-fact.

So those things--the humor and the intriguing backstory--make the telling instead of showing work in both books.

But what The Rook has that Stiletto lacks is an in-story reason for us to need all this explanation.  I mean, this kind of telling is basically a backstory info dump, which is poor form unless you're writing the second chapter of a Babysitter's Club book.

But in The Rook, there was a reason that you needed this information; the main character starts the story off by losing her memory.  A good chunk of the beginning is her reading letters that she wrote to herself before the memory loss, outlining all the things she'd need to know to impersonate herself. So there was a reason to get a multi-page summary of a character's life story, or an historical event, or a general description of what it's like to be raised at the Checquy boarding school.

Stiletto has less of an excuse.  I mean, Marcel's story of his experience in the war was one of my favorite parts of the book so far, but it was straight info dump, describing broad swathes of decisions and actions with single sentences, stating how groups of people felt about things succinctly, summing up a few years in a sentence.  It's not that it's not fun to read, but it's not exactly narrative, if you know what I mean.

The other thing I read recently that made me think hard on this subject was George R. R. Martin's story in the anthology Rogues.  It's an historical story from the world of Game of Thrones; I haven't read the books (though I watch the show religiously), so I can't tell you if all his writing is like this.  I do know that he gets into lineage and the complicated web of relationships that makes up the real world in a way that I respect a great deal (there is NO use here for the Law of Economy of Characters), but which makes a lot of telling necessary.

This story covered many decades; it was basically the story of a king's brother who aspired to the throne.  But it was told like a history lesson--almost exactly like one.  The only quotations were the ones that were spoken about or remembered; chroniclers are cited and rumors explained but not stated as fact.  It was like listening to a very good history teacher (Miss Lavoie!) talking about the Tudors.

All of these are stories that work, and that I'm enjoying a great deal.  But it's interesting to see how much stronger the book was when it had an internal reason, or the short story when it had a clear history-book structure.  The telling was nearly seamless there, where what happened was more important than how.  It wasn't till I got to the book where it was unexpected that I even noticed it.

More on Stiletto in a future post; I have a lot of thoughts on book 2s, as well as general comments on the heart pounding thrill ride that is the second half of the book, where the "telling" really kicks in.

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