Creative Writing Rant: It Goes Without Saying (But Not Without Showing!)

Sometimes, to create a sense of verisimilitude we over-describe, and usually do so regarding the most mundane activities, like getting a character from her car to the door of her house, through the door and into her house. 

I mean, if a character (in either a fiction or nonfiction narrative) approaches her or his apartment door and pulls a keychain from her or his pocket, do we (your readers) need to know that that character then chose the appropriate key, pushed that key into the lock, turned the key, then turned the doorknob and pushed open the door? Well, consider the following:

This is from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Is it important that “the woman brought two felt pads,” or that she “put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table”? Well, after we’re told that she brought the glasses and the pads, don’t we pretty much know that she’s going to put the pads down and then the classes on the pads? 

Yes, we do, and in most cases I, as a critic, would suggest to the writer that s/he needn’t describe actions that are so strongly implied, but notice what Hemingway does regarding point of view: The server assumes for a moment the third-person-limited POV of the story, and “looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.”

To whom are the hills “white in the sun” and to whom is the country “brown and dry”? Well, that is a more or less objective judgment: white is white, brown is brown, and dry is dry. But “the woman” is of that place; she’s a local and therefore will not regard the panorama from that railway pub with the same sense of its barren beauty, its glorious desolation. Indeed, she is arguably an aspect of that desolation. The POV shifts lightning-fast from the server to “the girl”; she is the one for whom the hills are white, the landscape dry and thirsty (that cold beer is looking pretty good, huh?). Hemingway creates a tableau: in that moment, in a quite cinematic way, we see the couple from the perspective of “the woman” and then the landscape from the perspective of “the girl.” Considering the topic of their extremely oblique conversation—“the girl” having an abortion—the barrenness of that landscape resonates that much more powerfully, no? The contrast between “the woman” and “the girl” (an age distinction no longer appropriate, but endemic to that time; “the girl,” obviously, is also a woman) also resonates. In that moment, we “see” three characters: “the American” and “the girl” who are seated, and “the woman” serving them. The landscape becomes—Does it not?—a kind of fourth character. Frozen in that moment, that tableau represents the points of conflict in the dramatic situation: between “the American” and “the girl,” and between the two of them and nature symbolized by their transitory relation to the landscape, the fact that they’re waiting for a train that will take them the hell out of that landscape, away from those “hills like white elephants.” The child that “the girl” is carrying within her is linked to that landscape; it is as transitory to her life as that landscape, that woman who has brought the beer.

Hemingway accomplishes all of these complex relationships between characters—“the American,” “the girl,” “the woman” and the fetus!—and these four entities’ relation to that landscape through visual imagery and narrative pacing. In other words, Hemingway shows his story rather than tells it, and every single detail is necessary, relevant. 

And da da da! That’s my convoluted point! Every single detail of a narrative, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or somewhere on the scale between the two extremes, has to be relevant, has to further the showing/telling of the tale.