Let Them Do All the Talking

Suppose someone uncovered a never-before-seen manuscript of Charles Dickens and posted it as a serial novel in an online magazine, or sold it on Amazon. Would it become one of the top-selling best reads of the year? I doubt it. It’s my belief that only a small percentage of readers today would hang around long enough for a story to unfold the way Dickens painted it. The decision to read a story by Charles Dickens is like drawing up a business contract to begin a relationship. It starts out as a chore and slowly evolves into a pleasant, satisfying friendship. Well, at least that’s how I feel about his first works; The Mystery of Edwin Drood was a bit of a gyp.

When I began reading the first chapters of The Pickwick Papers, I admit, it was a trial of perseverance. But by the end I was laughing, crying and inspired to expound on some of his sketches. Dickens, the master of characterization, merged detail and personality in a way that seemed effortless. A reader doesn’t consciously notice the character is being described at all. That’s finesse. I think it helped that he had a larger palette of words to use in painting his masterpieces. The writers of that time, such as Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell, were ‘free-penning’ concepts, aware that the culture was under fire. The Industrial Revolution was changing their world.

In comparison, our culture’s paperless venues are affecting the printed word to the point of confining literature to an often déjà vu-heavy shadow of what it once was. But while the vocabulary remains somewhat static, sometimes merely requiring one to invest in a growing repertoire of clichés, the expectation of the reader is greater. He/she is becoming acclimated to game, movie and graphic novel-driven forms of media. Books are in a mean competition with this accelerated thinking that allows the description to be mapped out in a few blinks. Is it any wonder some readers don’t want to waste time on descriptive prose, unless it’s a love scene in slow motion? Within this limited scope a writer is expected to create unique, relatable personalities, entrancing environments and novel plots.

With movie scenes replacing setting descriptions and animated images replacing character descriptions, what’s left to work with? Dialogue. Dialogue becomes the given for carrying a storyline. One must wield well-mastered dialogue to effectively capture readers. Instead of thoughtfully inhaling the perfume of a multi-worded garden of script, a reader looks for the description to make an appearance incognito between the humorous, oftentimes cynical, remarks of the characters. That’s why best-selling authors of young adult fiction avoid descriptive scenes that explain things organically and employ more flashbacks.

This is our Information Revolution to which we have responded with our own Age of Enlightenment and Romanticism. The yearning to stop and smell the roses – even the ones created with words – may be forgotten for a time in the bustle of the day-to-day; but it will emerge again. The times change, avenues change. People don’t. Neither should the integrity of a good story. Keeping that integrity is the challenge, I think.

I have to go now. The How It’s Made marathon is about to begin.

Author: Rilla Z

I'm a scribbler. I'm genuine. My topics of interest are: this world, the worlds inside my head, and the world to come. Oh, and cups of tea. Yes, I write about my cups of tea.

3 thoughts on “Let Them Do All the Talking”

  1. Great post, lady! While I support the evolution of language and writing, I hope the methods of the old masters are never entirely lost. Incidentally, have you ever read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarkson? It’s written with similar, long-winded descriptive complexity, and it takes a while to reach the guts of the piece, but the effort is not wasted if one perseveres. I enjoy modern writing and it’s nice to cut to the quick without all the extraneous variables, but every now and then I crave that old British, French, or Russian style, even if reading their pieces requires a bit more labor to reach the meat at the center of the pie. I was shocked when I re-read Les Miserables; I hadn’t realized that the first time I read it, I was holding an abridged version. There were 200 pages fleshing characters I’d never hear of again on at least three or four occasions! Still, the old classics read like poetry; there is much to be learned from their authors ability to turn a phrase, from their dry wit and careful description. Authors often used to be paid by the word (Dicken’s stories were serials in papers), and being highly verbal was more lucrative. Now to sell copies an author must avoid boring an agent, a publisher, and finally their readers…How times have changed! Perhaps a combination of their literary grace, with careful pruning, would be most appropriate. Still, you’re right: dialogue is an important vehicle for the show, don’t tell mechanism.


    1. Someone else mentioned JS & Mr. N to me. I need to look into that one. Thanks for the reminder!

      Dickens wasn’t paid by the word when writing “The Pickwick Papers.” He was paid by installment, as were most serial novel contributors to periodicals of that time. And I think you’re right; serialized fiction writing can promote wordiness. I’ve written a handful of serial novels & novelettes. While it’s true I extend some scenes to set up cliffhangers, it works against the plot momentum to include too much description, backstory or angsty monologue.

      So true! While the character & moral analyses in War and Peace blew me away, sometimes I’d much rather read Maximum Ride. Glad there’s the choice.


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