Showing and Telling

The opening of Beloved by Toni Morrison, with passages of ‘showing’ in italics and ‘telling’ in bold:

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124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years oldas soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hands prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the door-sill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at oncethe moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.”

As you can see, showing involves a dramatising of info; the giving of implied information about characters, theme and setting. Telling, on the other hand, mostly involves giving (or declaring) factual information in summary form.

Aside from showing and telling, the other feature of this opening is the way that information is withheld. We are told certain key facts (124 was spiteful; Sethe, Baby Suggs and Denver were left alone in the house; the boys ran away) but we are not told the whys and wherefores (who / what is 124; what is going to happen to Sethe, Baby Suggs and Denver in the house; where the boys have gone to). These things are left for the reader to puzzle over.

When embarking on a book, one needs a reason to keep reading. This can take the form of mysteries, which leave a person wanting to know more. If readers were told everything at the beginning, then there would be no incentive to continue (apart from in the kinds of books where the entire focus is on how something came about – but that’s an entirely different bottle of worms).

Personally speaking, I had no idea what was going on in this opening paragraph, and so I would have read on just to try to make some sense of it. People are sense-making machines. Having said that, I’m not going to rush out and buy this one today. But that might be because it’s 17.27hr on a Sunday – all the shops are closed and it’s time to have a spot of dinner.

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