Monday, September 21, 2009

Meaty Mondays: Show, Don't Tell (2 of 5)

This is an updated version of this post in which I try to explain the nuts-and-bolts of how to apply the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle to your fiction.

I've split this topic into several parts because I think there's many levels of subtlety when it comes to 'showing' rather than 'telling'. I'll start with what I consider the most basic techniques and work my way up to the most sophisticated ones that I've managed to mash into my wee brain.
This week's two entries are some of the most basic. Depending on where you're at as a writer, all this may seem blitheringly obvious, so do skip this post if you like, but please do come back for next week's instalment! I'll be covering topics in the following order:

Preamble: Show, Don't Tell (Sept 14, 2009)
Technique 1: Dramatize the Scene (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 2: Avoid the 'To Be' Construction (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 3: Avoid Cliches, Choose Fresh Language (Sept 28, 2009)
Technique 4: Action, Not Words (Oct 5, 2009)
Technique 5: The Art of Implying Information (Oct 12, 2009)

Technique 1 of 'Show, Don't Tell': Dramatize the Scene

If one character tells another character in words about some trauma or event, then you, the writer, are 'telling' the reader something.

Likewise, if your story is in first person, it's common for the protagonist to 'tell' the reader about events as if the reader were a person the protagonist was speaking to.

The problem is, it's always duller to hear about something than see it. If you have a happening in your novel that affects the plot, it should be dramatized. That means you write the scene when and where the events occur so the reader can live that moment along with the characters.

I think it's often fear that persuades a writer to avoid dramatizing a scene. Often, those scenes are the ugly, messy, difficult ones, but be brave and write them anyway! It's the only way to get better at writing the tough stuff, and they're also often the scenes that make you feel most proud of your abilities once you do successfully claw them out of your heart and onto the page.

Caveat: Backstory

Please note that if the dramatic events in question took place long before the story started, you may wish to leave them out of the novel. If the events are really juicy, however, you should at least consider a flashback or a prologue to dramatize them. Your readers do crave the exciting bits, even if it makes the story a bit non-linear.

If you do decide to leave the scene out, but the information is still necessary to the reader, it's acceptable to have characters 'tell' the reader this in some fashion. However, 'telling' always makes for dull reading, so you want to be careful about how you do this. Please come back in a few weeks for Technique 5, The Art of Implying Information, for tips on how to accomplish this deftly.

In summary, avoid having important events told to the reader via dialogue. Instead, put the reader into a scene that will show them those events.

Technique 2 of 'Show, Don't Tell': Avoid the verb 'to be'

Notice how often you use the verb 'to be', particularly when you use it to create sentences of the following form: '[Subject] was [something]'

- The sky was blue.
- He is wet.
- The dishes weren't washed.
- Her perfume was cloying.
- She will be frightened.

This construction is almost always 'telling'. Remember that 'showing' strives to engage the reader's imagination, to make them feel/see the scene in their mind. When you use the construction '[This] was [that]', you are informing the reader of a fact. That doesn't form an image in their mind, and thus it's not effective storytelling.

Compare the above examples to the following:
- The sky glowed as blue as silk.
- Water drips from his hair and his clothes cling, dark and wrinkled, to his body.
- A smell of burnt spaghetti sauce hovered over the pots left on the stove.
- Her perfume crawled up his nose and clung to the back of his throat.
- Her heart will beat so fast, she'll feel her kneecaps vibrating.

If you're describing a visual, try to convince the reader's imagination to picture it. If you're describing a sensation, try to make the reader feel it. You want them there, inside the story, not merely aware of what's happening.

Breaking yourself of the '[This] was [that]' habit is difficult but very rewarding, because it's easy to spot the problems, and yet it takes quite a bit of mental effort to think up a better way of saying something so straightforward. However, once you do, the results will immediately make you feel like a better artist, because the improvement is so obvious. '[This] was [that]' is simply bland; you can do better.

So how do you convince the reader's mind to imagine the sensation? You need to think carefully about what the sensation feels like and viscerally describe what it does to the character's senses.

For example, if the character is half-frozen, you might describe how their shivers seem to radiate from the centre of their chest, how their cheeks burn when they try to grimace, how their knuckles ache and their fingers resist being uncurled from a fist.

For reasons I'll discuss more when I talk about Technique 5: The Art of Implying Information, it's often useful to focus on one tiny, vivid detail.

For example, if the character is looking at overturned sod, you might say the soil is haired with tiny white roots. The reader's imagination will fill in the rest of the picture spontaneously.

I'll come back to this subject more next week, when I cover Technique 3: Avoid Cliches and Choose Fresh Language.

In summary, every time you use the verb 'to be' (outside of dialogue), think of a better, more visceral way to describe what you mean. Remember your goal is to get the reader's imagination to recreate that sensation inside their mind.

If you found this post useful, please mention it to your writer friends. I'm trying to increase the readership of this blog. Thank you!

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