Moby Dick – The “Tell, Don’t Show” Section

Whenever I’ve taken creative writing courses, the rule that always comes out is “Show, don’t tell.” It’s the number one rule to remember when writing fiction. You don’t tell the audience that a character is ruthless, you set up scenes that demonstrate the character’s ruthlessness. You don’t tell the audience that it is a dark and stormy night, you create the feeling with direct facts of trees blowing around and references to the darkness itself.

I’m now on chapter fifty-two of Moby Dick, and the section I just finished violates the “Show, don’t tell” rule throughout. I’m guessing that when people try and read this book, it’s this section that makes them quit.

What started as a good adventure story has taken a little pause in order to fill in the reader on all kinds of factual things about whaling. While I understand the potential importance of this, entire chapters have read more like a text book than a work of fiction. Chapter thirty-two for example is a complete description of all the different varieties of whale and how one goes about classifying the different types. Not the kind of thing that keeps you riveted to the book.

It’s also interesting to note that during this very chapter, the author mentions “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught.” There are quite a few places during this section that feel like they were added after the story was created, and just thrown in willy-nilly, without much thought as to how it might affect the pacing. The chapters that push the story forward feel like they aren’t aware of these long chapters of exposition.

Other Characters

During this stage, a few characters have been introduced to us, and we’ve been given glimpses of Ahab and his own character. It’s interesting that I made the last note as pre-ahab, because the introduction of Ahab himself was done with quite a bit of buildup and suspense. He lived down in his cabin until the ship was out to sea, and when he finally really came alive and talked to the crew, it was to get them to commit their souls to hunting down the white whale.

We’ve also had small glimpses into the officers of the ship and the other harpooners (other than Queequeg). We haven’t learned much about their characters yet, other than Starbuck looks to be the most level headed of the group, and the one who will most likely challenge Ahab directly.

I hope that the next section of the book builds more on these characters and moves away from the textbook style of the last section. Then maybe I’ll get the next posting about this one up a bit quicker (it’s been a challenge to force myself through this last section).

New Questions

A couple new questions. With the textbook chapters, only so much of the story has progressed, so I don’t have too many new ones.

  • How will the oath that the sailors took play into the story? How much of the influence of putting ones soul on the line will impact people’s actions?
  • Ahab is intent on the White Whale, but will we get to see the crew in action taking on other whales as well? We’ve seen the start of one so far, but they got turned back by weather. I’m still curious about what the crew does when it actually catches a whale.
  • The introduction of the stowaways that man Ahab’s boat was interesting and somewhat unexpected. How will these new characters influence the story and the crew? They were not part of the crew’s oath to Ahab, will that play into things?

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