Rebel, Rebel: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Updated: Apr 3
In this series, I discuss the so-called rules of writing--and how great authors manage to break them.
The Book MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Ray/Penguin Random House)
I loved Moreno-Garcia's 2019 novel, GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW, so I was excited to dive into this one. And HOLY SH**, did it ever deliver. I read MEXICAN GOTHIC in a day and a half while sick with the flu. I would climb into a nice, steaming bath and start reading, and all of a sudden, boom, the water was cold. Two hours had passed and I'd barely noticed. (Sidebar: If you choose to read this book in the tub, be warned there are some highly creepy bath scenes that may or may not leave you too scared to get out.)
Protagonist Noemí, a glamourous Mexico City socialite, is sent into the mountains to inquire after a favourite cousin, who claims her new husband's mansion is haunted and making her ill. There's a lot that's innovative about this story. Moreno-Garcia takes the gothic fiction genre, often associated with Victorian England -- think misty moors, overgrown cemeteries, etc. -- and transplants it to 1950s Mexico to tell a story about class, race, and patriarchy.
For the purposes of this post, however, I'm going to focus on Moreno-Garcia's great ability to use telling, as opposed to showing.
Why you might want to follow the rules
To tell is to make a statement about a character. Take this example I just made up: "Beth loves coffee." Whereas to show is to illuminate a character through thought, emotion, or action: "As coffee collects in the pot drip by drip, Beth's heart skitters, her fingers tremble, and she cries out, 'BREW FASTER, GOD DAMN YOU!'"
Many people claim that telling, which lays everything out for the reader, is lazier than showing, which invites the reader to make an inference. Showing means adding the right details at the right times and trusting that the reader will come to a certain conclusion based on what they see. It's harder, but the payoff can be excellent. Often, it's the sign of a more patient writer.
For agents and editors, too much telling can be a red flag. (Fairly or not -- more on this below.) But Moreno-Garcia uses it a ton, and to powerful effect.
Why it works to break the rules in this case
Moreno-Garcia wrote an insightful essay about the value of telling, which she says has a more prominent and respected role in Latin American stories. As she writes, telling can create a bit of narrative distance, evoking a slightly more omniscient narrator reminiscent of folktales.
Think of a camp counsellor telling a ghost story around a fire, or an elder telling a fairytale to a child; the narrative voice is often all-knowing. Moreno-Garcia employs this device with intention to craft a folkloric atmosphere for the reader. It works doubly well in MEXICAN GOTHIC since childhood fairytales and coming-of-age are two prominent themes throughout the book.
There are also times when Moreno-Garcia tells to show. I find that if you stack two "telling" statements against each other, the space between them -- what is left unsaid -- can reveal a lot. For example: "Beth loves coffee. Coffee is always the same." This is telling, but it shows us that Beth prefers the predictable and leaves us wondering why. MEXICAN GOTHIC offers this kind of layered telling in spades.
I'm afraid to quote any specific examples from the text because my peon brain doesn't fully understand how copyright works. Go buy or borrow the book for yourself and see how many examples of great telling you can find.
But remember what I said about the bath.