When is telling really showing?

An old adage of fiction writing, oft-quoted, is ‘show, don’t tell’. But what, then, to make of this novel opening:

I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.

I’m totally pissed at my old man who’s somewhere in the Virgin Islands, I don’t know where. The check wasn’t in the mailbox today which means I can’t go to school Monday morning. I’m on the monthly program because Dad says wanting to be an actress is some flaky whim and I never stick to anything […]

It’s Story of my Life by Jay McInerney, and it’s pure telling. But notice how full it is of devices: figures of speech (‘this shit’, ‘totally pissed’); tone (aggrieved); rhythm (punchy, fast, with sentences lengthening and punctuation reducing to suggest increasing hostility)? Can’t you just see the character in her late 80s pre-slacker nightshirt and leggings, fiddling with the phone because her Dad’s secretary has put her on hold?

It channels Holden Caulfield, of course (‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’) and sounds like a conversation overheard on a bus, but isn’t that the point? The work is telling, but inside the telling is so much characterisation, it doesn’t just narrate the story, it embodies it.

Of course, the novel itself is full of incident and irony — it’s hardly a work that could be accused of using voice to paper over shortfalls in story. The narrator’s moods change, events affect her, she alters inflection and swaps anecdotes midstream; but underneath it all is a tale of urban self-destruction propped up by the nostalgic wish for myths of true love and happily-ever-after to prove real. This same thematic content could have been delivered in myriad other ways, such as through the arm’s-length third-person story of a young woman living at the edge of wealth with no real means to keep herself afloat and surrounded by a peer group bent on drug abuse and sexual uninhibition, something like:

Alison thought: ‘I don’t believe this shit.’ She studied the phone before pressing redial again and waiting, tapping a foot against the skirting board. One of her flatmate’s Givenchy heels stuck out under the bed next to a condom wrapper.

…but it wouldn’t have had the same feel, immediacy or freshness as it did (at least in 1988), and probably wouldn’t have seemed as real back then, either.

McInerney’s work shows us the value of enhancing ‘voice’ in narration, particularly when delivering details of characterisation and situation that might have seemed over-told and static if delivered in any other way. It shows that you can reveal as much or more about character simply through the expressions they use. Meanwhile one of the drawbacks of first person narration (that it’s harder to plant irony) falls by the wayside: of course there are ironies when a character is so caught up in the vicissitudes of a subculture and in staying ahead of the moment that she doesn’t notice her own self-destruction.

Thus it’s true that, in this case, telling is showing. That is, we learn as much about the character’s life from the way she speaks as by the content of her narration. Can you employ any of these tactics without a first-person narrator? Are any of the above devices useful inside other forms of exposition? That’s something for another article.

But for now, when using first person narration, remember that voice can turn ordinary telling into unbeatable showing.