by Guest Blogger Laura L. Mays Hoopes
As a writer, I find many people use movies and TV shows as examples and I’m forced to wonder if writing can do as good a job as the visual and auditory media in conveying story and meaning to an audience. I can easily see the advantages these media have over writing in a book: the lush colors, the facial expressions that mean something to us, but might not carry that same message in a description of them, the camera movement and zooming in, the theme music in the background.
I’ve come to think that the main advantage we writers have is the way we can jump into people’s minds and emotions directly. In the course of my writing program at SDSU, we talk often about the interiority of characters. Their emotions, their thoughts are important aspects of the writing we analyze. But how authors choose to show them is very disparate. On one end of the spectrum, we have Hemingway. In his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” for example, there is no description of either character’s interior thoughts or reactions. Yet interiority is suggested, in the tense dialog, in what is not said, in the actions of the two people. Show, don’t tell, taken to the maximum.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Virginia Woolf. In her novel To the Lighthouse, she wrote page after page of description of the thoughts of one character about all the others, or about one in particular of the others, interspersed with a few actions. In those pages, there are no “scenes” in the sense of a screenplay; you would simply see a character sitting, or standing and painting, or trailing her hand over the edge of a sailboat. Perhaps in a movie version of the novel, a narrator would read her mind for you, perhaps not. In any case, in the novel, Woolf does read it, and tries to follow every dip and swirl and about-face that mind and emotions dictate. But the absence of what we usually think of as scene is replaced with the way we can now understand the character. This style of writing has a lot of telling in it, but it works.
So which is better? I think almost all of the writers I know use a mixture of both. It is interesting to take something short you have written and try to push it to one extreme and then to the other. One may be much more powerful than the other, but it’s not easy to predict. But in my view, more interiority is preferable, just because it uses the tool that is most special to writing. No funky narrator’s voice booming out of nowhere like a Deus ex machina to reveal feelings, just an all-but-invisible whisper of information from the writer, a glimpse inside the mind of that fascinating character you are following. Does Lily in To the Lighthouse regret not being married and having children? A little, but she regrets not having tried harder to understand her friend before she died much more. We know that by following the digressions of her mind as she tries to concentrate on painting a sailboat on a sunny afternoon. We know it so well, we don’t feel sorry for her, but wish we could console her with the thought that it’s always close to impossible to understand another human being.
There are examples of writing, like some of Hemingway’s, where interiority is suggested effectively but not revealed explicitly. But I would argue that “show, don’t tell” can be taken to mean interiority is not wanted in writing. That would be a big loss, in my book, and an example of not using the best tool available to writers.
Laura L. Mays Hoopes is a biology professor turned writer. She has mentored almost 200 students in research on aging, supported by over 2 million dollars in federal and private grants. She blogs on Women in Science for the premier international journal Nature and advocates for having it all–balancing career and family. Find out more at www.Lauralmayshoopes.com.