When I was in ninth grade, I had an English teacher – let’s call her Mrs. Proctologist (which vaguely resembles her actual name). Our first writing assignment was a Show, Don’t Tell assignment that had to be written in third person and very explicitly, you know, show rather than tell.
I didn’t do very well. I slipped into the character’s thoughts at one point, thereby using first person. And my description, while present, was not deemed enough. In particular, my character was a dancer who takes off her street clothes to take class, and puts them on again before leaving the studio. I still remember describing her Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt in the beginning, and later merely referring to it as a sweatshirt – Mrs. Proctologist was not a fan of this latter reference, writing “what kind?” in angry, red letters that screamed off of the page.
Even at the time, I realized that was bullshit. Just because the reader can’t be bothered to pay enough attention to an initial description doesn’t mean I need to recount it in its’ entirety every time the same item is used again. Giving additional information about the item, perhaps, and maybe that’s what Mrs. Proctologist was trying to get at, I’m not sure. But the thing is, there is such a thing as too much information. Sometimes, you should tell.
What got me thinking about this issue? Elyssa Friedland’s Love and Miss Communication.
There are many problems with this privileged-white-girl novel about a lawyer in NYC who gets laid off but receives a generous enough compensation package to allow her to snub her friends electronically by refusing to use the Internet for an entire year, which is almost impossible for the average person who gets laid off from employment, since much of the job-seeking process these days occurs on the internet.
Evie, potentially the most annoying protagonist on the planet, is so hung up on her ex that she vomits all over her computer upon realizing he married someone else a few months after breaking up with her… supposedly because he doesn’t believe in marriage. And at first, yeah, sure, you feel kind of bad for the chick. Until you keep reading and realize she is the most self-absorbed asshole on the planet, and then you realize, of course this chick can’t find anyone to put a rock on her finger.
Because, you see, that is what this book is about. The fact that marriage is something beautiful, rich, smart girls need to feel fulfilled. I mean, there are characters who are like, “Of course, Evie, I wouldn’t care if you never got married, if you didn’t care so much.” Except the characters saying this are all happily married women themselves, so the idea being espoused by these words doesn’t really seem to hold much weight.
Evie is a cliched stereotype who doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t just fall all over themselves loving her, and go out of their way to keep her in the loop because she’s so addicted to the internet she can’t use it without throwing up all over everything.
One of the problems with having such a self-absorbed protagonist is that as readers, we are forced to endure learning the about the agonizing minutiae that Evie is so attuned to herself. So, we get to learn that Evie’s glad she put in the extra effort in appearance (about which we are also told, in detail) before every date she goes on with her future fiance (which, frankly, isn’t a spoiler, because if you don’t realize who she’s going to become engaged to from her first meeting with the guy, then I will be very surprised) because he is wearing insert every detail of his outfit, including his shoes, here. Like, you would think by the third date, she would be aware that this guy tends to dress well for dates, and she should probably follow suit.
In between Evie’s riveting inner dialogue, we get fascinating actual dialogue such as the following exchange:
‘Evie, I’d like you to meet someone.’ Aunt Susan was beaming.
F – .
Susan must have brought a boyfriend with her. Another crunchy hippie to smell up Tracy’s car. She looked past her aunt, trying to catch sight of the dreadlocked Phish-T-shirt wearing middle-aged man…
‘Evie, this is Wyatt.’ Susan wheeled over a stroller that was positioned a few inches away from her. She turned it so the baby faced Evie.
‘Wyatt is my son,’ Susan said…
Evie was stunned. She had to be hallucinating.
‘Aunt Susan,’ Evie said, speaking cautiously as she focused her eyes on the baby nuzzling her aunt’s neck. ‘Wyatt is black.’
*insert slap of fictional character’s face here*
I know it’s a bit old-fashioned of me, but I like being able to like the main character most of the time. Particularly in a rom-com. Particularly when that rom-com has very little that is funny about it. And I feel that, perhaps Evie could have been a likable character, if the author hadn’t decided to splash her mental and verbal diarrhea all over the book so that we got a “feeling” for the character without actually being told what Evie is like.
Instead of creating a likable character we want to root for, we know that Evie’s a self-absorbed, racist snob. Probably not what Friedland was going for. I think Evie is an example in which we are given so much information about the character, the result is antagonistic to the author’s intent (about which I am presuming and may be entirely wrong), the result may in fact have turned Evie into a character that was also not the character the author meant/wanted/needed to write.
Do you have an example where Show, Don’t Tell is, perhaps, the wrong advice? Have you read Love & Miss Communication? I would love to hear your thoughts!