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Journal of a novel: Aug. 24, 2016. Show, don’t tell

August 24, 2016

In a series of posts, I’ll share both Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel and what I learn from it, and I’ll show you what the writing life is like for me.

I have to laugh. In John Steinbeck’s first Journal of a Novel entry, he describes the notebook in which he’s about to write and reports that:

a puppy gnawed the corners of the front cover

I left my copy of Journal of a Novel in a vulnerable spot. My cat, who’s fond of chewing things like computer cables and iPad cases, left some vampirish fang marks on the cover. It looks like someone attacked my book with a giant stapler.


In his March 29 entry, Steinbeck writes:

It is the custom nowadays in writing to tell nothing about a character but to let him emerge gradually through the story and the dialogue.

Wow, is that ever true today. The catch phrase is “show, don’t tell,” and woe betide the writer who uses too much exposition. When I first received this instruction in an early creative writing class, I didn’t quite get it. I can’t remember when the light bulb went on over my head but I understand it now, so well that I tsk-tsk when I read someone else’s work that has too much telling and not enough showing.

However, I recently got a much better sense of what Steinbeck was griping about when I picked up Lady Chatterly’s Lover, first published in 1928, several decades before Steinbeck. Between Steinbeck and D. H. Lawrence, you might be thinking I’m on a program of reacquainting myself with classic literature but that’s not why I was reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I was doing research in connection with a poem I was writing.

I was stunned by how much telling and how little showing there was. Steinbeck nailed it: the writing style is completely different. Had Lawrence shown and not told, Lady Chatterly’s Lover would probably be three times longer than it is.

It would be an interesting writing exercise to rewrite Lady Chatterly’s Lover using today’s “show, don’t tell” writing style. Then Steinbeck could stop grumbling. I’ll add that to my Story Ideas list.


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