I just finished reading The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing’s excoriating novel of 1940s Rhodesia.
Yes, I know it was published in 1950. Look, I’ve been busy.
Whilst I was disappointed with the ending – I didn’t think that Moses’ motive in killing Mary Turner was examined in nearly enough depth, and as such the murder came across as quite unlikely – I thought that overall it painted a compelling and viciously believable picture of the claustrophobic life of white Rhodesian farmers.
One thing that really stood out to me, however, was the author’s extensive use of bald “tell” statements. Yes, the cardinal sin of tell!* Characters quite routinely have their emotions and thoughts plainly described in the narrative, as opposed to letting their actions reveal these things to us.
And you know what? It works. It’s fine. The book doesn’t become unreadable, the characters don’t recede into cardboard cut-outs. It’s just a way of telling the story.
Perhaps it’s helped by being from a different time – a time before television and cinema became ubiquitous and the lurid images that they conveyed diminished the need for an author to describe times and places that the average reader would never have been able to imagine? Perhaps it’s because the novel starts with the murder and simply reviews the circumstances that led up to it, meaning that there can be no requirement for suspense? I don’t know.
All I know is that Doris Lessing told, and it worked.
Can we learn anything from this? Perhaps that, handled correctly, “tell” need not be such an anathema after all.
*Non-writers will probably not appreciate this cast-iron rule of modern storytelling, so if you have no idea what I’m talking about then go to Google, or your search engine of choice, which will be Google, and type in “show vs tell”. There’ll be more there than you will ever want to read, much of it probably by people who have no real idea what they’re talking about, like me.