- Telling Not Showing
- Use of Dialogue to Display Plot
In “The Last Night of the World” by Ray Bradbury, we begin with a husband asking his wife what she would do if it was the last day of the world. The wife responds confused and then the husband clarifies that he knows that that day is the last day of the world. When she questions him of how it will end, he answers with no prevail claiming he just knows. The wife asks how he knows the world will end and he explains his dream to her; in this dream a voice said that things would stop on Earth. The husband shares how he had the exact dream as a coworker of his and the rest of his office as well. The wife explains how she has also had the same dream; together they come to the conclusion that everyone in the world has had this dream and that the world will indeed end. The wife says she will only miss him and their daughters as they reflect on their relationship. They question what they will do with their last night and decide to wash the dishes. They put their children to sleep and ponder if they should leave their door cracked. (I should also mention that they say that the children do not know this is their last night on Earth.) The couple sits by their fireplace and kiss (presumably soaking in the end of the world). They get into their bed, and the wife quickly slips out to turn on the kitchen sink. The couple laughs about leaving the water faucet on, the simplest of things, and then whisper “Good night” to each other.
Okay that was just a tad depressing; the chronic tension of this piece would be everyone having the dream and actually analyzing the dreams authenticity (even though we never truly know if it is the last night of the world). The acute tension of this piece would be it being the Last Night of the World and the characters just coming to terms with that (even though, surface-wise, they seem relatively calm).
I really enjoyed reading this story, but it really messed up my mind for a day. The two elements that I tracked for the piece were telling not showing and displaying plot through dialogue.
Ray Bradbury does a great job of telling not showing. And as we have discussed the debate of showing or telling more in your writing, Bradbury is a great example of how telling can execute just as well as showing. The sentences he has laced in between spurts of dialogue are barebone and simple therefore not distracting from the issue at hand. For example using a line like, “He shook his head.” or “He poured some coffee.” These lines show how simplicity is all you need. And this simplicity works well with the overall plot of the story, as if the white elephant in the room is pregnant with unsettling gas problems. It’s hovering right over you, but you are waiting for its untimely passing. It makes the other lines in Bradbury’s writing something more vivid and saturated to latch onto. And for this reason, I have included the following sentence (which is also probably one of my favorites in the story.
They sat a while not touching their coffee. Then they lifted it slowly and drank, looking at each other.
And to be a bit less technical, lines like this feel whole but empty, like white space, like they are encompassing the characters at the same time.
While the telling not showing may still seem like it does not allow for much plot to occur, there are quite a few lines of denser explaining that are telling.
In the background the two girls were playing blocks on the parlor rug in the light of the green hurricane lamps. There was an easy, clean aroma of the brewed coffee in the evening air.
Not only do these lines tell not show, they also help to add natural pauses in between dialogue.
The other element I tracked in this piece was dialogue that was used to illustrate plot. Dialogue was every other breath in this story, so I decided only to highlight the most important or information-giving pieces. Everything is left up to dialogue to make a sufficient plot and arc in the piece; again, we can see Bradbury’s writing pass expectations. The story of the Last Night of the World is told by the couple as they talk about it. This excerpt is a great example,
“Then we started walking through the office, for the hell of it. It wasn’t planned. We didn’t say, ‘Let’s walk around.’ We just walked on our own, and everywhere we saw people looking at their desks or their hands or out windows. I talked to a few. So did Stan.”
This could have been easily written in prose, but choosing to use the format of dialogue makes this block of exposition being spread seem more casual (and it also just reminds me more of an audiobook, but that’s beside the point). This flow of information being given to reader flows through seamlessly.
The dialogue, while it gives crucial information, also helps to show the characters’ thoughts without having to use the generic I thought or she thought.
“Maybe it’s because it was never October 19, 1969, ever before in history, and now it is and that’s it; because this date means more than any other date ever meant; because it’s the year when things are as they are all over the world and that’s why it’s the end.”
(This also helps to characterize.) This line gives way to the narrator’s personal thoughts and also gives a (roughly) decent explanation for the plot.
As I mentioned before, this story really made me ponder about my own life on Earth. (It also made me think of like the third episode of Dr. Who when they’re all in space watching Earth be destroyed, if you know what I’m talking about.) I have learned a lot from this and how it could help my own writing. (1) I have always stressed about how much showing I have been incorporated into my fiction. I would love to add a simplicity to my exposition and prose, because simplicity is just as beneficial to the reader as complex showing. I can also use this technique to convey certain tones throughout my future pieces. (2) I am also (definitely) scared of writing dialogue sometimes. And in this piece, dialogue is basically the skeleton of the piece. I want to try to incorporate dialogue into more of my writing and also use it to convey heavy plot (bombs?) themes and ideas.
- Why do you think the wife chose to leave the water running? Do you think there was any theme or symbolism in this? If so, why?
- As I stated before, the parents knew their children didn’t know it was the Last Night of the world. If you were one of these children would you want to know? If you were the parents would you tell your children? Why or why not?
- Was this the Last Night of the World? (Do you think evidence is sufficient?) Follow up: What if tonight was the last night on Earth?