Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tell, don't show?

A standard bit of advice to aspiring authors is to show action, not talk about it. It's often good advice: showing a world explode (for example) is more dramatic than saying that it did.

Like all rules, "show, don't tell" has its exceptions. Telling can be an effective technique, too.

Following my recent trip to England I felt the urge to reread the various cases of Sherlock Holmes. My hotel in London was in walking distance of 221b Baker Street (and indeed, my wife and I did visit the Holmes Museum at that address.) But keener is having seen many of the locales in which the beloved stories take place, on land and on the Thames.

The connection with today's topic? Holmes called himself a consulting detective -- clients come to his flat and describe their cases. We don't hear the recitations from the point of view of the client (generally the one with first-hand experience), nor even of Holmes. We aren't privy to the client's thoughts at having witnessed the invariably odd events, nor to Holmes's thoughts on having heard the recitation.

What readers know of the cases generally comes from the notes of of his faithful (and often clueless) biographer, Watson. Or from the reports of the Baker Street Irregulars: street urchins dispatched by Holmes to watch things for him. Or from newspaper excerpts.

Even when Holmes does leave his flat, he's often off-stage -- out of Watson's sight -- and returns to explain what he saw and did. (Yes, there are exceptions. But even then, often not much action. And when there's a malefactor to be detained, Holmes tends to have prearranged an aide(s) from Scotland Yard to provide overpowering force.)

Most recently I reread "The Final Problem," in which Conan Doyle, having become thoroughly sick of writing Holmesian mysteries, hurled his character into a bottomless abyss. But we didn't see Holmes's fateful struggle with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Watson, having (once again, without clue) been dispatched on an errand, comes back to find a farewell note from Holmes and reads the signs of a struggle in the trampled ground. We know Holmes and Moriarty toppled off the Reichenbach Falls -- not by seeing it ourselves, not even by being told by someone who did see the tragedy, but by being told that the incident could be inferred.

And yet, how many scenes in fiction are more memorable? The struggle on Reichenbach Falls certainly stuck with me for decades. 

(In fact that scene inspired a small but -- I like to think -- moving passage more than two centuries later and a few billion miles removed, in my 2010 novel InterstellarNet: New Order.)

Holmes's myriad fans rebelled; popular demand persuaded Conan Doyle to bring back his most famous creation. I'm very glad he did  -- and that he could, precisely because of the way he'd handled Holmes's supposed demise.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be off to The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Somewhere, the game's afoot.

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