So a few days ago I was reading a the original ‘Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Anderson. I was curious about the story after my boys took a liking to the Disney version. I won’t spoil anything for anyone, but I highly recommend reading the original. It is superior in every way to the lax character development of the Disney version.
Anyway, more on topic, the reason I bring it up is because the story is written in a very old form of storytelling. This is a narrative story. What does that mean exactly? Well it’s a story where the reader tells, instead of shows in many cases. Where in more modern times, things are shown through dialogue and action, these stories were loaded with much more description and close to no dialogue at all. The best example I could give would be a campfire story. When you’re around the campfire speaking your adventure, are you going to load it down with dialogue? Of course not, that’d just look silly. You’re going to talk out everything, including descriptions and character actions.
In modern literature, the golden rule is now ‘Show, Don’t Tell.’ To keep an audience engaged, you need to allow them to draw their own conclusions as to what’s going on, what characters are thinking, and much of the who/what/where. Narrative stories essentially deny the audience that, which is why they are often frowned upon in today’s market.
Does that mean that they are out of date and should no longer be used?
Well… yes, to a point. In more simplistic children’s literature where a child is only beginning to think outside the box, a narrative story is exactly what you want… unless you want your kid asking you a million questions during the story.
However in terms of adult stories… I’m afraid it’s something we rarely see any more. Would I say that they’re out of date? No… more like out of style. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of narrative stories that keep my attention and keep me engaged, but they are often far in between. The best thing to do is enjoy them as you would any other antique. Though they may not be what they were, often they are still great stories worthy of remembrance. I just wouldn’t recommend writing a new story in this style.
Unfortunately I feel like “show don’t tell” has taken on far more importance and universality than it should. I’ve read some recent books where there was so much showing that it was actually hard to keep up with what was happening. Kept taking me out of the story as I stopped to reread a paragraph to try to understand the action.