30 July 2013

Show and Tell

       Show. Don’t tell.
       Every aspiring writer has encountered this admonition. Campfire stories are “told” (“suddenly it turned out that he was the murderer!”) but good short stories and novels require a stepped up game plan. “Showing” rather than “telling” requires more than relating a plot; it requires building the story, revealing the plot through the interaction of believable characters. This rule can sound simple. In practice it can be anything but.

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee
        Every writer has his or her own approach to building a story and breathing life into characters. A particularly unique approach was that employed by my favorite mystery writer(s), Ellery Queen. As explored in previous articles, it is well known among the fans of Ellery Queen’s mysteries that the authors behind the curtain, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, wrote as a divided team. Dannay supplied detailed plot outlines that “told” the underlying story in a bare-bones narrative, and from these Lee wrote the finished mystery novel, building the story and giving life to the characters who, through their actions, “showed” the mystery to the reader.

        This division of labor was certainly a peculiar one. Dannay, the consummate editor during his tenure as editor-in-chief at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, was nonetheless seemingly uncomfortable with the narrative process. And Lee’s son Rand has observed that, by contrast, Manfred B. Lee “could not plot to save his life.” But it was Lee who was gifted with the ability Dannay lacked, to build the stories and the characters that would ultimately breathe the needed life into Ellery’s escapades. Bickering aside, it was a particularly symbiotic literary marriage. Little wonder, given this, that after Lee died in 1971 there were no further Ellery Queen mysteries even though Dannay lived on for another eleven years. His plots would not have been enough standing alone.

       All of this is not to belittle Dannay’s contributions. The outlines he prepared were anything but inconsequential. They set forth the intricate and at times downright convoluted plot lines for which Ellery Queen is famous. They were also no small enterprise. We know from an article by Frederic Dannay’s sons Douglas and Richard, which appears as a chapter in The Tragedy of Errors (Crippen and Landru, 2000), that the outline for The Player on the Other Side was 42 pages long, the outline for And on the Eighth Day, 66 pages, and the outline for The Fourth Side of the Triangle ran 71 pages. The Random House first editions of these novels, in full, run 213 pages, 191 pages and 183 pages, respectively. In other words, each novel was only three to four times longer than the Dannay outline on which it was based.

     While Dannay's outlines for those three Queen novels have never been published, the outline for what would have been the final Queen novel, The Tragedy of Errors, is set forth as the first half of the Crippen and Landru volume of the same name. From that outline it is easy to understand how much Lee would have been expected to add to a final work. Dannay’s outline is 52 pages long. The story? Well, it’s intricate and clever, as one would expect of Queen. It is premised on allusions to the works and life of Shakespeare, and it gives us numerous characters who strut and fret their time on the mystery’s stage. But in outline form the characters are cardboard. They needed Lee, who died before the outline could ever be transformed into a full fledged novel. 

       A note to the purists out there -- I recognize that The Player on the Other Side, And on the Eighth Day, and The Fourth Side of the Triangle (discussed above) were largely drafted by other writers during the time that Lee suffered from writer's block. But the point remains that Dannay’s ingenious plotting, standing alone, was never enough. It was the addition of character and descriptive prose, generally Lee’s province, that gave the breath of life to the mysteries. 

       An analysis of the works of Queen is interesting since the Queen library, unlike most other works, was constructed under this formula that clearly divided the two building blocks of narrative writing: plot, on the one hand, and story and character development, on the other. The ability of Dannay and Lee to separately allocate these tasks is not a luxury to which the rest of us can resort. We, by contrast, usually have to do the whole thing ourselves, even if we are better at one half than we are at the other. No matter how great our plot may be, it won’t capture the reader without believable characters through whom the story progresses. And no matter how developed our characters may be, they can’t propel the story without an underlying imaginative plot. 

       Two recent mystery novels illustrate this principle all too clearly. Each focuses on a nonagenarian central character, each involves a story with flashbacks to that character’s youth, and each centers around an underlying mystery that is probed by the other characters in the story. One of these mysteries works. The other (sadly) does not. 

       I don’t like saying anything negative about someone else’s work, particularly when that someone is Hallie Ephron, award winning mystery writer and mystery reviewer for The Boston Globe, but her recent mystery There Was an Old Woman (not to be confused with Ellery Queen’s 1943 novel of the same name) just did not work for me. I thought the central character, a spry ninety-two year old, and the underlying story of strange happenings in a shore community on Long Island, were intriguing; certainly enough so to make me commit to handing over the full price of the novel after reading the free sample offered up on my Barnes and Noble Nook. But ultimately the story fizzled -- Ephron tells the story but she doesn't show it. Had I been asked to review this work prior to publication my advice would have been that even at 273 pages it may be too short. Either that or those pages weren't utilized efficiently. When I reached page 273 I left behind two dimensional cardboard characters, many of whom had behaved bizarrely and with motivations that were “told” to us by the author but not “shown” through the actions and interaction of the characters. When secrets were revealed I wondered why would the character have done this? What justifies behavior that differs from that which we have seen before? When flashbacks to 1945 occurred, centering on the famous Empire State Building airplane crash, I was perplexed: how does this progress the story? Why is it important to the plot? When characters revealed a hidden agenda I was confused -- where was the evidence of this aspect of the character’s personality? Where were the clues to this? The book is unfortunately only an outline of what it could be.  The author tells us a lot, but shows us very little. 

      By contrast, Kate Morton’s new mystery, The Secret Keeper, at 445 pages, is a marvelous gem of a mystery. Here, too, the central character, a matriarch approaching her 90th birthday, is at the heart of a mystery that her children must solve. Here, also, the narrative shifts between the central character’s youth, in World War II England, and present day London. During the course of the novel we watch as characters who behaved one way in their youth change, and behave differently over the course of time. But Ms. Morton puts so much time and care into the development of her characters that we, the readers, know them. We listen to them, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and appreciate, even anticipate, the changes they undergo during the march of time. We understand where they have been, why they react to matters as they do, and why they ultimately change as the world around them changes. By the end of this lovely mystery we leave enchanted by what we have read. The loose ends have been successfully tied, and we are sad to say goodbye to characters with whom we feel we have lived.

       When I read There Was an Old Woman I found each plot twist jarring and inexplicable. I was rolling my eyes. When I read The Secret Keeper the plot twists made perfect sense and I found myself constantly nodding my head and smiling in agreement. As between the two, most readers, me included, prefer the latter. That’s what well developed characters will do for a story.


  1. Frank DeMarco30 July, 2013 09:10

    When you think of it, it’s something of a miracle that so many people can do both of these two very different things. Josephine Tey was a marvelous writer, but she only wrote eight mysteries, because she had a terrible time coming up with plots. If she had had a partner in crime a la Ellery Queen, perhaps we would have had many more novels, which would have been all to the good. Rex Stout and G.K. Chesterton, too (as little as they might seem to belong in the same sentence), also seem to me to have been far stronger on characterization than on plot. In both cases, their plots often seem contrived and in fact downright creaky, but the reader comes back time and again for the marvelous writing.

  2. A note to readers -- Frank is one of my oldest friends, going back to fraternity days at George Washington University. We discovered Colin Wilson together and (strangely) each of us has been active in the area of pastiches. Frank wrote Messenger,a sequel to James Hilton's classic Lost Horizon.


  3. I sympathize with everyone who has trouble coming up with plots, because that's where I always stumble, wrestle, sweat blood, tears, etc. How Agatha Christie could keep coming up with a new one every three minutes, I do not know. Or Mrs. Henry Wood. (Seriously, read "East Lynne" and enjoy.)

  4. I have wating rooms full of characters waiting for me to give them plots. Some may wait forever...


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