So you’ve got your characters ready to walk onstage: Bill, the bully at the legal firm Danforth & Hatch; Moira, who’s bucking to make partner there and doesn’t mind sleeping her way to the top; and Arnold, last name Hatch, one of the firm’s founders and a senior pain in the neck. But the reader needs to know a few points about Bill before that scene in the meeting room with Moira. That is, Bill’s got a drinking problem that’s recently morphed into a cocaine addiction, he’s been married twice and divorced once, and he never lets anyone else finish a sentence. Oh, and his specialty is corporate tax law, which has made a pile of money for the firm over the last 10 years.
The easiest way to portray Bill is through what I call the dossier method. Devote anything from a paragraph to a page or more on Bill: his happy childhood and unhappy adolescence; the way his mother would despair of ever teaching him manners; the high point of his college years, when he made it into the Chi Omicron club (and was subsequently kicked out for “acts of financial mismanagement”). Put in whatever you like, and make it salient.
But do you really want to pass on all your information to the reader in such a direct, concentrated form? What about a little interaction between Bill and the office assistant, Margaret, to give some feel of just what a bully he can be? Have him bark orders at her until she bursts into tears. His desk has one drawer open two inches, and peeking out are half a dozen mini bottles of Scotch, the kind you get on airplanes. Yet he bypasses L’Espace for lunch and ends up back at his desk with a turkey sandwich, poring over financial reports from Viscom.
If you follow this advice, you’re doing what so many fiction teachers tell you to do, which is “show, don’t tell.” This dictum, which over the years has achieved the authority of God, is variously ascribed to Ernest Hemingway, Henry James (who ignored his own advice half the time), Anton Chekhov and Gustave Flaubert. The gist of the point is worthwhile: This is a story you’re writing, not an expository essay. Let’s see those characters of yours move and shout—perform on the page. Another way to put this, even if you’re never going to write a play, is “dramatize!” Rig up scenes that display your people in action. After all, that’s how we read life.
But it needn’t be noisy. In Excellent Women, the British novelist Barbara Pym sets a lunch scene between two people in a restaurant, where the man orders wine:
“A tolerable wine, Mildred,” he said, “unpretentious, but I think you will like it.”
“Unpretentious, just like me,” I said stupidly, touching the feather in my brown hat.
Then, later on in the lunch:
He lifted the bottle, judged the amount left in it and refilled his glass but not mine.
The reader is always a detective, searching out clues. But you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes (another great character) to see who’s calling the shots here.
David Galef, the director of the creative-writing program at Montclair State University, is a shameless eclectic, with more than a dozen books out. His latest short-story collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman, is available now.