Monday, November 28, 2011

That would be telling

In this post, I'm going to briefly discuss writing rule number one:  show, don't tell.

It sounds like such a simple rule.  Allow characters' actions, what other characters say about that character, and that character's thought processes speak for that character.  Don't outline what kind of person we're reading about.  And yet, I see it in so many books, where it feels like the author is droning on for pages.  Worse, many characters don't live up to what we've been told.  I don't buy it that the kid who just kicked his teacher in his old football injury is a lovable scamp, and anyone who tells me so is going to be regarded as an unreliable narrator for the remainder of the book.

Unreliable narrators can work, by the way, but that's a subject for a whole other post.

If your character has particular traits, you need to show that character acting consistently with those traits.  Even if the whole idea of the story is that the person acts strangely.  Especially if the point of the book is how your character is acting inconsistently.  I need to be shown, through a choice that character makes, that what you want me to believe is true.

The magic of writing is, you don't need to make it obvious.  In fact, you should hide it as much as possible, in words, in deeds, in gestures, in what this character notices.  If your character is happy and says so, that doesn't hold nearly as much power as his skipping down the stairs and humming as he loads the laundry into the washer and smiles at the chocolate stain on someone's favorite shirt.  The first one's a Facebook update; the second can build enough narrative tension to last a novel.

When you tell what's going on, the words fall flat, and there are so many missed opportunities to be inside character's heads.  You hold the reading experience hostage.

However, filling your book or story or whatever you're writing with details that engage the five senses and give insight into the characters in a few words make for a more enriching reading experience.  Readers want to feel engaged, they want to feel like part of the story, and they want to understand the characters.

I don't have a quick solution for how to show, rather than tell, except to practice.  Ask others which scenes or characters fall flat, then flesh out the scene or character in as many words as you can.  Write hundreds, thousands of words to describe what you want.  Then, boil it down to its essence, picking out descriptions you used that engaged more senses than just sight, or visual cues most people wouldn't have noticed.  Pick the most vivid or unique characteristics.  Write your sentences in a way that evokes the pace you're going for in the scene - short, rapid-fire sentences for quick action, long, drawn-out paragraphs for a reflective stroll where a decision is reached.

Do you have a tried and true method to show, rather than tell in your writing?  Do you have any examples you're particularly proud of in your own writing where you've shown a lot in a brief period of time?  I'm looking forward to hearing your feedback.

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