In case you're wondering, that IS the cardinal rule of writing that I just mangled. Show, Don't Tell has been pounded into us from the very first time we picked up a book on how to write.
Everyone knows "Telling" is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It's the open door through which the demons of terrible storytelling will escape, to mangle your manuscript and ruin your revisions.
Well, not always.
I had an epiphany the other day while re-reading The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, by Patricia C. Wrede. To be specific, I was reading the first book, Dealing with Dragons.
Dealing with Dragons is a delightful book about an improper princess who runs away and volunteers to be the captive of a dragon. (primarily because she's bored, but also to keep from having to marry a rather stupid prince) After she volunteers, she's with the dragons for several weeks before anything happens, and with them even longer before the main crisis hits.
Obviously the talented Ms. Wrede can't show us everything that happens to the princess, or every conversation that she has. So she uses short paragraphs to condense the time frame. For example:
Therandil left, but he came back again the next day, and the day after that. It got so that Cimorene could not even step outside the cave without running into him. She might have been flattered if it hadn't been so obvious that Theradil was only worried about how foolish he'd look if he went home without fighting the dragon. On his fifth visit, Cimorene was very sharp with him, and when he had not returned by midafternoon of the next day, she began to hope that he had finally left for good.
This is a very functional and useful paragraph. It gives us a sense of Theradil's persistence and character and sets up the next scene, where Cimorene discusses her knight problem with a new friend. It's not the best part of the book, by any means. But it's necessary.
Here was my epiphany: I don't have one time-condensed paragraph in the book I'm currently revising. Not one. (except for the prologue, which doesn't really count)
My heroine does almost nothing with her time except run around and try to solve a mystery. In fact, when I needed to speed the book along, I simply knocked her unconscious.
Now there is good conflict in the book. But there aren't many breathing spaces, someone is always talking or fighting or flirting or discovering bodies. And what I realized, is that this doesn't give you much of a sense of who my main character is, what she does on a daily basis, how her life goes beyond the current problems.
I find myself wondering if that hinders our ability to identify with her. And maybe it's something that keeps readers from being as invested in the book as a whole.
What I'm talking about is basically exposition. We usually don't notice it, and we're taught to avoid it whenever possible. But there are times when exposition is both useful and necessary.
Here is a rough example of the sort of paragraph that (maybe) should be in my book, and isn't.
The afternoon was spent at the House of Music, having dance lessons with Yasmeen. Nisha loved to dance, loved the rhythm and the flow of it. But she couldn't lose herself in the music this time. Instead she watched Yasmeen's thin form sway in the elegant Willow steps and wondered. Who hated these girls enough to kill them?
See? Still reasonably engaging, (I think) with a much better sense of what Nisha does with her day.
Perhaps I'm wrong. I could just be spouting heresy of the rankest kind. But I'm beginning to appreciate the beauty of well-placed exposition.
What do you think?