Monday, September 28, 2009

Meaty Mondays: Show, Don't Tell (3 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.
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 3 of 'Show, Don't Tell': Avoid Cliches and Choose Fresh Language

When I say the phrase, "She was at a crossroads in her life," what does that mean?

I know this sounds silly, but please humour me: actually come up with an answer to that question. Got it? Okay.

When I say the phrase, "He took a stab at assembling the toy," what does that mean?

Got an answer? Okay.

My final question is: did you, at any point, actually picture two roads that cross one another? Did you picture a guy stabbing something with a pointed instrument?

Probably not, because the phrases "at a crossroads" and "took a stab at it" are cliches. The phrases have been used so many times people don't think of them as metaphors anymore. The literal meanings have evaporated from our collective memory, and what we understand, when we hear those phrases, are only their figurative meanings.

I'm not sure I'm being clear, so let me try putting this another way: consider the phrase deja vu. We use that phrase, in English, as if it were a word meaning 'to feel like you've experienced something before when you haven't'.

But it's not a word. It's two words, and to someone who does speak French, deja vu means 'already saw', as in 'I already saw your new car.' It's just a part of the language.

Your (English-speaking) brain interprets deja vu as a word. In a very similar fashion, your brain interprets a cliche like it's just a word. If the cliche was originally a clever analogy or witty phrase, overuse has sapped it of that meaning, and now it's just shorthand for an idea.

For this reason, you want to avoid using cliches in your writing. Your Show-Don't-Tell goal is to get the reader's mind to actively imagine what you're describing, and a cliche is a wasted opportunity because when the person reads a cliche, their mind just slides on by it without picturing anything.

So how do you force a person's mind to imagine something?

One of the most useful techniques I've found is novelty. When something is worded clearly, but in a surprising manner, your brain kicks into gear. I think one of the examples I used last week...

Her perfume crawled up his nose and clung to the back of his throat. a good example of this. The sentence is clear enough, but it's an atypical description of a familiar phenomenon--having to breathe someone's overpowering perfume. My hope is the reader's brain is just puzzled enough by this description to try to imagine that sensation--and if I succeed in getting it to do that, then I have succeeded in pulling the reader into the world of the story. Remember that this is the goal of using the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle.

This technique of using atypical and imaginative language can be applied in smaller ways throughout your prose. Instead of saying:
- Her face turned red.
- A piano tinkled in the back of the lounge.
- The air smelled of pine.

You might consider saying:
- Embarrassment painted roses on her cheeks.
- A piano giggled in the back of the lounge.
- The scent of pine prickled the nose.

In the first examples, you can probably see why this is more like 'telling' than 'showing'. The descriptions are perfectly acceptable, but they aren't working hard to make the reader see/feel anything because the descriptions are so commonplace. They're not cliches, but they're familiar enough the reader's imagination isn't necessary.

In the second examples, the language is just a little odder (hopefully without being intrusive) and so the reader's imagination is more likely to be engaged. The more it engages, the more 'real' the story will feel to the reader.

I tend to think the deeper you can draw the reader in to the world of the story, the less likely they are to be able to crawl out before the book ends, and we writers naturally want a strangle-hold on their attention for the whole novel. Thus, on the assumption that every little bit helps, I recommend trying to use fresh, imaginative language throughout your prose.

At the very least, you'll have a lot of fun and feel like a better artist for it.

In summary, a cliche is a wasted chance, because the reader doesn't need to engage their brain to understand what you mean. Clear yet fresh language is more likely to kickstart the reader's imagination, and having the reader's imagination in gear means you have their full attention.

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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