SHOWING AND TELLING is divided into three parts. The first part is about scenes. It defines them and gives examples of vivid ones. The second part is about summary, and the different uses of narrative. The third part shows how both work together. Alberts doesn’t delve deeply into any of these topics. Instead, she presents an obvious concept, then smothers it in unnecessary details. But more information doesn’t equal better information. Alberts does too much telling of her own, not enough of the showing that a good how-to book needs.
Here’s an example. When explaining suspense scenes, Alberts says, “The whole genre of cliffhangers developed out of the serialization of stories (and later movies) that used that kind of life-or-death suspense to keep the audience interested enough to wait for next week’s installment.” Everyone knows what a cliffhanger is and where it came from. Far better than a definition would be lessons in how to effectively use cliffhangers, and when not to.
Likewise, a section on pacing uses examples full of ellipses where Alberts deleted words and sentences. How can you teach pacing with an example that’s deliberately made choppy? Only the full original text can accurately show the author’s pacing.
Ironically enough, Alberts’ instruction really shines when she’s telling writers what not to do. In the section called “Sins of Scenes,” she warns against dialogue as exposition, stretching credibility, and getting overly sentimental. These are worthwhile lessons that every writer needs.
The second part is slightly better than the first. Few books tackle the subject of telling, except to say, “don’t do it.” However, Alberts shows how straightforward narrative is necessary for background, context, the rich inner life of a character, and to allow for the passage of time. Narrative is also where theme often resides.
It’s always a red flag when a book is descriptive rather than instructive. Telling what to do without showing how to do it means that the author probably does not know. It’s an even bigger red flag when an author uses one of her own stories as an example. Although Alberts includes snippets of other people’s work, she feels the need to reproduce her entire short story, “Russia is a Fish” as an instructive example. Sure, this story is famous. It won a literary award and launched Alberts’ career. However, there is not a writer on the planet who can be objective enough about her own work to use it as a teaching tool.
Alberts is very eager to dissect her examples without giving any guidance to her intended audience. SHOWING AND TELLING might work as a piece of literary criticism, but it’s not a true how-to.
rating: 2 stars
pie slices: 8 slices craft
This book is best for: beginning writers