This week, I decided to spend time reading “well regarded” writers, whatever the hell that means. Mostly, I just tried to think of lit that I’d been forced to reach in high school English classes. Hemingway came to mind, but I was not in the mood for his boundless machismo. And you know how I feel about Nathaniel Hawthorne.
So instead I settled on one of my favorite writers, one whose books couldn’t be ruined no matter how ardently my classes tried to beat the life out ’em. (As an aside, I mean no offense to English teachers —most are lovely. It’s just that some of them hate books as much as they hate children).
Anywho. This week, I picked up a short story by Kurt Vonnegut called “Harrison Bergeron” (free! On the internet! Right here!) and dove right in. As I read, I had this classic quote in mind:
“Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”
Huh! How utterly unconventional! It seems like he’s suggesting we’re allowed to tell-instead-of-show and also info-dump and also engage in exposition-chunks and all those other things we’ve been told not to do? In short, it seems like he’s suggesting we break the rules! I wonder he’s going to follow his own advice in “Harrison Bergeron”?
Spoiler alert: yup.
Indeed, the story started “as soon as possible” with a block of exposition and plunged on in the same vein throughout the entire story until the end, which was satisfying and unambiguous and wonderful.
Don’t get me wrong: I like a story where nothing really happens and I’m left wondering what the hell I was supposed to glean from the whole thing anyway (Do I? Really? Like that?), but reading “Harrison Bergeron” was refreshing to the soul. It was iced coffee on a summer day, or a hot Jacuzzi in the snow.
How did he get away with all of his rampant telling-not-showing? And info dumps and brazen exposition?
Relax, I’m going to tell you.
Nope, definitely just tell you.
Kurt Vonnegut is having a conversation with us
Kurt Vonnegut is, in my opinion, one of the best writers of the 20th century, and to me that comes from his quality of ease. Even this horrifying short story of a hopeless dystopian world is replete with that really specific understated Vonnegut humor.
“Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime.”
There is nothing strained or try-hard about Vonnegut’s style. Though his novels, like Slaughterhouse-Five, are experimental in format, I never get that I’m-a-snooty-post-modern-writer vibe from Vonnegut. He’s conversational.
When you embrace this quality of ease as a writer and pursue a more casual tone, then telling isn’t bad writing. It’s communicating. If you and I were speaking together, we would describe things to each other like normal people.
When we’re communicating normally with each other, we don’t show people things in a writer-ly way. in a conversational setting, this would be a real weird way to describe someone seeming angry and uptight:
“It wasn’t only the whispered oaths, it was the lips: white, thin, and bloodless. Stiff from her mouth to her arms to her hands down to the linen, forcing crisp lines from soft things. As though each sheet had embarrassed her with its tumbled looseness, and must be punished.” (lol it’s laundry day).
No, in conversation we’d just tell someone,
“She looks angry and uptight while she’s folding them sheets!”
And that’s what Vonnegut does: he chooses points in the story to adopt a conversational tone. And just tells us things. On purpose.
He knows he can accomplish more, faster, with chunks of exposition
If you want to tell a satirical tale set in a dystopian science fiction world (in the space of a short story), you gotta do a little telling.
In “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut uses clear exposition to plunge us into the story straight away. Starting the story with a complete set up? Not something I often feel comfortable with; none of us wants to be guilty of the dreadful “info dump.” But Vonnegut’s not afraid. Here’s how the story starts:
“THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.”
Other writers might have handled it differently. They might have insinuated, poked, and peeked around the truth and the point of the story. Made us guess a little.
There’s nothing wrong with tiptoeing around the scene, if that’s what you’re after. I love ambiguity in the hands of a good writer. All I’m saying is? There’s something to be said for an abrupt entry into a story’s world, especially when that world is a dystopian one. And that story is a short one.
By telling, Vonnegut can cover a whole lot of ground really quickly to accomplish his goals with the short story.
To heck with suspense.
He trusts us as readers
In writing that we judge for being overly “tell-y,” what is it that we’re actually judging? Why do we deem it BAD?
I think for many of us, it comes down to trust.
If the author doesn’t trust their own powers of description (or trust us to understand them) and they feel like they’re not conveying emotion or setting or tone appropriately, they’re going to insert themselves unnecessarily (but still unconsciously) into the narrative. They get nervous.
“SHE WAS ANGRY AND UPTIGHT,” the author shouts, because he’s afraid you didn’t know.
In Vonnegut’s case, he knows you know. Because he’s in cahoots with the reader. Though it’s not quite as evident in “Harrison Bergeron” as it is in his novels, Vonnegut’s all about meta-fiction, where the author is there with you. Striking up a relationship. No need to shout; there’s an understanding.
In the quote at this article’s start, Vonnegut says he wants his readers to be able to “finish the story themselves,” which in my opinion is a perfect and beautiful expression of trust between reader and writer. It might not work for all genres (i.e. mystery, maybe), but in Vonnegut’s case it works.
When bad writers “tell,” they’re doing it because they don’t trust us, and we can tell. When Vonnegut tells, it’s because it simply works better in the situation than showing. And he knows that we know.
He knows when to move and when to linger
The opening of “Harrison Bergeron,” with all its bam-bam-here’s-the-scene allows us to sink right into the story. I’ve read excerpts from beginning writers (and I’m lumping myself in there) where the urge to “show” leads to long, meandering passages that don’t add anything to the narrative.
If you’re spending a lot of time showing something, make sure it’s important to the narrative. If it’s not, just tell us. Move the story along. Don’t drown us in a seething ocean of purple prose whose lavender crests are capped by halos of setting sunlight (lol). Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer because he knows how to tell a story from start to finish, even if its not linear in form. You need momentum for that, and sometimes momentum necessitates telling.
But of course, he also sometimes lets his dialogue show the emotional heft of a scene:
“You been crying” he said to Hazel.
“Yup, ” she said.
“What about?” he said.
“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”
“What was it?” he said.
“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.
“Forget sad things,” said George.
“I always do,” said Hazel
Vonnegut doesn’t need to shout at us in this scene. He doesn’t need adverbs after the dialogue tags. Its poignant and simple, and speaks for itself. As an accomplished writer, he knows when to step away. That’s real showing.
Where it counts.
Um. If you were to beg me to summarize this laborious and meandering post, it would be thusly: Vonnegut’s good at stuff. Bye.