James Purdy’s “Cutting Edge” and Hemingway’s iceberg (tip 74) 2

D.D. Johnston discusses James Purdy’s short story “Cutting Edge” as an example of how a seemingly insignificant conflict can make for high drama when it stands for something bigger. In “Cutting Edge” the question of a young man’s beard becomes the symbolic terrain on which an inter-generational battle is fought. The story is about moral values and the future of America, but all of this is left unsaid, lurking below the water – after all, when people argue they rarely refer explicitly to what they’re really arguing about. In this sense, Purdy’s short story can be said to demonstrate Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg principle.” You can read the full story here.

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Zadie Smith’s ON BEAUTY: telling the story through sensory detail Reply

In this video we look at two descriptions of the same place, which appear at different stages of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Although the place is the same, Smith is able to advance the story just by changing the sensory details on which she and her characters focus. Being able to do this, to show rather than tell, to use concrete description as an essential part of the story rather than a background, is central to how most writers work. But do remember that mimesis is not the only way to tell the story: there are many alternatives to the cinematic mode of narration.

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Direct versus indirect characterisation (tip 51) 1

Direct characterisation is when you tell the reader what a person is like (e.g. she was a kind woman); indirect characterisation is when you show the reader a character’s actions and leave them to make their own judgements (e.g. she always bought treats for the neighbourhood kids). As a general rule, you should tell us objective facts about people (e.g. he was 32; he sometimes spat at cats) but show opinions such as ‘he was nasty’ through the character’s actions.

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The objective correlative (tip 31) 1

How can we make our readers feel something? Readers expect a good story to excite them or move them or make them laugh, but conveying emotion is the hardest task a writer faces. Human emotions are caused by neurochemical reactions, and to make a chemical reaction occur in someone’s brain just by showing them marks on a page is tantamount to magic. The secret to working that magic lies in finding an effective ‘objective correlative.’

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Tell, don’t show Reply

One simple rule can sort even a serious ‘show, don’t tell’ obsession: so long as you’re dealing with objective facts, tell us those facts as simply and clearly as possible. You only need to make an effort to show rather than tell when you’re conveying subjective ideas.

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