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The Lady Vanishes: Showing and Telling - 08/29/2013

A couple of weeks ago, PBS aired a new version of THE LADY VANISHES, previously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. As you may remember, the story concerns a self-absorbed young Englishwoman who gets acquainted with a middle-aged, English spinster on a train in central Europe. When the woman, Miss Froy, disappears, everybody else on the train denies she ever existed. After watching the TV movie, I read the 1936 book it’s based on, THE WHEEL SPINS, by Ethel Lina White. It’s interesting to observe how the literary standards for “showing” and “telling” have changed over the decades. The novel starts with an intriguing hook sentence: “The day before the disaster, Iris Carr had her first premonition of danger.” Then the omniscient narrator launches into two pages of exposition, telling us about idle rich orphan Iris’s background and personality, the carefree, irreverent, promiscuous “crowd” she calls her friends, and their interaction with the other patrons of the hotel in the remote European town where they’re vacationing. Although the polished writing style makes this exposition a pleasure to read, few editors would tolerate it nowadays. The author would dramatize this information in “cinematic” style, revealing it through dialogue and action the same way the movie does. It’s worth noting that some conversations dramatized in the film are written as indirect discourse in the book. (By the way, the next time you reread PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, notice how many o...

The Lady Vanishes: Showing and Telling

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