This post kicks off an occasional series where I’ll be recommending books. The recommendations aren’t limited to a particular genre or time period; instead, they must meet the following criteria:
- They’re good reads. Whether they’re bestsellers or standout independent publications, I firmly believe that they are well-written and enjoyable.
- They have one or more elements, techniques, or scenes that really stand out and showcase the writer’s craft.
- They’re books that have helped me grow as a writer, because I have turned to them as models of how to approach a particular scene or concept.
If you aren’t a writer yourself, I’m hoping these posts will encourage you to take a look at some really great novels. If you are a writer, you already know that one of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers is to read. It’s pretty standard advice for a good reason – it’s something you absolutely should be doing. That’s not to say you can’t write well without being well read, but doing so is like being a bodybuilder without a high protein diet – it’s doable, but you’re doing things the hard way and unnecessarily straining yourself. However, the advice usually just starts and ends there: if you want to write, you should read.
Going back to the bodybuilder analogy, it’s like saying “if you want to gain muscle, you should eat protein.” Sure, it’s true and it’s good advice, but it’s not particularly useful. It doesn’t get into the details, to what kinds of foods provide the best proteins, or what foods to avoid, or how to balance out protein with your other macronutrients. It’s surface level advice. You see, if you want to improve your characterization or pacing or imagery or whatever, it’s a lot easier if you have some guidance in where to look for these things. When I identify a weak area in my writing, I think, “Where have I seen something like this done well?” and if I can’t think of something right away, I ask around. These posts are intended to curate those examples and share them with all of you.
I’m starting with Stephen King, one of the most prolific authors of the 20th century, a man who is pretty much an institution in and of himself, and Mr. Mercedes, the first book of the Bill Hodges Trilogy.
If you haven’t read this novel, first of all, I strongly suggest you do so. It’s really good. Second of all, I am going to be doing a deep dive into an early scene of the book, so there’s minimal spoilers to worry about here.
Mr. Mercedes is a character driven thriller that starts with a horrific crime committed by a man the press dubs “the Mercedes Killer”. The story focuses on two main characters: a retired detective chasing the one that got away and the Mercedes Killer, who thinks he’s just smart enough to get away with playing games. When the detective gets a letter from the killer, he begins an unofficial (and unsanctioned) investigation, determined to take care of unfinished business.
In a wonderful use of dramatic irony, King identifies the killer early on, leading to several scenes where the reader wants to shout the truth to the characters who have no idea that they’re actually interacting with the deranged psychopath. King takes us deep into the minds of all the characters, including some truly disturbing looks at the mind of a murderer. I could write at length about any of the characters in this novel, since they are all so well developed. However, King’s introduction of the novel’s protagonist, Detective Bill Hodges, is a standout scene in a novel filled with stellar characterization.
The first time we meet Hodges, he’s not obsessing over the case. Instead, he is sitting in a chair, watching afternoon TV (which he describes as a “diet of full-color shit”) with a beer in one hand and his father’s gun in his lap. Now, that right there on the surface level is some very effective characterization. Immediately we know that this is not a happy man. You don’t do that if you’re a happy person content with their life. King could have stopped there and it would have been a good example of “show don’t tell” (perhaps the most common advice given to writers…because it’s so very, very important).
Of course, he didn’t stop there. Not in the slightest.
The scene is a third person limited viewpoint, meaning everything we are getting about what’s going on is filtered through Hodges’s personal point of view. And that point of view is one of depressed, resentful cynicism. Everything described in the scene receives a negative connotation. While watching a Jerry Springer type of show, Hodges reflects that “the host is the sort of man who sometimes commits suicide and afterward all his friends and close relatives say they never had a clue anything was wrong; they talk about how cheerful he was the last time they saw him”. He thinks of the two women on the show as “Knockout Bod One” and “Knockout Bod Two.” As he watches the “drama” unfold, he mentally compares it to breaking up a bum fight back in the 80s.
If you’re not familiar with it, bum fighting is where two homeless people are promised money if they fight for the entertainment of wealthy or middle class assholes. If you think that sounds horrible, you’re absolutely right. By spending day after day watching television he doesn’t actually enjoy, Hodges seems to actively invite depressing memories and negative associations.
Hodges recognizes that he is depressed, and thinks about getting a hobby, like painting. He remembers another retired officer who took up painting, but then immediately his thoughts turn to that man’s stroke and eventual death.He regrets that he cannot drink enough to keep off suicide forever, and remembers the times he’s taken the gun and put it in his own mouth and considered pulling the trigger. By the end of the scene, his suicidal ideations have resolved as just “not today”.
I’ll understand if you need a moment before reading on.
So yeah, that’s some powerful, heavy stuff. And we get it all from Hodges’s point of view. King never tells us that Hodges is cynicial, that he’s depressed, that he’s just so done with everything. Instead, by walking us step-by-step through Hodges thought process, he shows us how cynical, depressed, and done with life Hodges is. He makes you feel that Hodges is suffering, not from physical pain or injury, but from the weight of a life spent dedicated to a purpose that he can no longer fulfill. It means that by the end of the scene, the reader is actively rooting for things to improve for Hodges, for something to get through to him and pull him out of this funk before the seemingly inevitable happens and he ends his life. And let me really emphasize this: He does it all in a scene where the character just sits there watching TV.
By the way, when King introduces the antagonist, he hits another home run. The power of showing instead of telling is that it gets the readers invested in the story, lets them feel alongside your character, and builds tension so thick it’s nearly palpable.
Mr. Mercedes is both entertaining and instructive, and in general just one heck of a good read.
Just…make sure you’re in a good headspace when you read it. It’s a great novel, but it hits some hard and dark places, and you should be ready for that. If you are, however, you’re in for one hell of a time.
Have other good examples of showing instead of telling? Want to share some of your favorite reads? Let me know in the comments below! And if you want to see some of my writing, click here for a free book.