All Good Stories Begin and End in the Heart of a Man . . . or a Woman

I just finished watching Last of the Dogmen for the fourth or fifth time, and I am still under the spell of powerful storytelling. The story itself is good, but what makes it special is the narration by Wilford Brimley. Oddly, the narration was added after filming and over the objection of the writer/director who was so upset by the use of supplementary text that he refused to write Brimley’s words. Apparently, in some versions of the movie, the narration was subsequently cut way down and redone in another voice, probably in response to viewer complaints since most people seemed to think the narrative annoying, so I’m lucky to have the version I do.

What’s interesting about the narration from a writer’s standpoint is that it’s a good example of tell don’t show. Normally, showing is the way to go, but there are many intangibles that cannot be shown, especially in a movie. What’s interesting about the narration from a viewer’s standpoint is that it adds a different dimension to the film, taking it beyond a fantasy/romance/western into the category of myth.

Broken heartThe narration starts out with Brimley intoning that “the story begins where all good stories begin and end — in the heart of a man . . . or a woman.” I like that line, mostly because of its truth. If a story doesn’t delve into what matters, then the story doesn’t matter. Another line of Brimley’s is “Sometimes you have to put your faith in something you can’t see.”

And that, of course, is why the movie speaks to me. Both characters are searching for something beyond their ordinary lives, as am I, and they find wonder and mystery they could never even have imagined.

Perhaps we are all looking for what lies beyond the façade of normal life, because really, how can this culture of ours be the apex of billions of years of creation? There must be a world of wonder running concurrently with this world of wage slavery and commercialism. We can’t all find Dogmen, of course, but we can find . . . something.

For thirty-four years, I did find “something.” Although I wasn’t looking for it, I found love, companionship, connection with another human being, which was magical in its own way. And now that he’s gone, I want a different form of magic, though I couldn’t even begin to define what I am looking for. Just . . . something.

And that “something” lies where the rest of my story is — in my heart. It’s just a feeling I have, that there’s something out there — or in me — to find. In Joe vs. the Volcano, another favorite movie of mine, Meg Ryan tells Tom Hanks, “My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.”

While living in a state of constant total amazement sounds exhausting, it would be nice to waken just once.

As for movies, apparently what appeals to me in film is the mythic quest. Joe vs. the Volcano, like Last of the Dogmen, is another story of people finding what they never knew they were searching for. And it’s a story of luggage, but luggage is a topic for another day.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

On Writing: Tell, Don’t Show

In Description, Monica Wood commented: Don’t enslave yourself to showing. “Show don’t tell” is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective and thrilling as long as the prose is interesting and engaging.”

As a reader, one of my pet hates is when one character is talking to another, and they retell the entire story up to that point, so as a writer, when I get to a place where one character has to tell another what the reader already knows, I write something like, “and Sam told Sally about the woman who tried to kill him and how he ran off instead of trying to find out who it was.” Avoiding repetition is one reason telling is so much better than showing at times. Makes the story move faster. Might not be immortal prose, but it moves the story along.

The worst offenders of the tell, don’t show suggestion are lawyer books. They spend the first half of the book laying out the story, then the second half repeating that story in a courtroom setting. If a reader can skip a whole slew of chapters and not miss a moment of the story, the writer has not done his or her job. If the writer wants to do the courtroom scene, then make sure what is shown is new. Otherwise, simply tell what went on in a few short sentence and get to the good stuff.

Another time telling is better than showing is if a scene has no conflict, no surprises, no twists. If a character sets out to do something and accomplishes it without any problems, then showing is a waste. Just tell it. Don’t build up to  . . . nothing.

A way to know if it’s better to show or to tell is to decide what you want to accomplish with a scene. If the immediacy of a scene is important, show it. If the reactions of a character who was not involved in the scene are most important, then it’s possible to have one character tell the other what happened and then show the character’s emotion.

When writing More Deaths Than One, I worried that I was cheating readers by doing the big disclosure  at the end via letter (in other words, telling), but the importance of the scene lay not in finding out the truth of who Bob was but in the different ways Bob and Kerry reacted to the truth. It was about them and their relationship more than the deeds themselves. It was also about the emotion of the person writing the letter and how that emotion bound all of them together. So basically, the letter was all about telling rather than showing the disclosure, and showing rather than telling the emotion it evoked.

When do you tell instead of show? (I mean you personally, not writers in general.) How do you make it effective and thrilling?