Writing Lesson #1 concluded, we’ll move on. First however, a note on writing “rules” and “guidelines.” There are always exceptions to such loose rules. But it’s good to learn them, to understand the exceptions. In the recent Troy picture, Achilles and his younger cousin (who he is training) spar in a mock swordfight. At the opportune moment, Achilles switches sword hands and defeats his pupil. The younger man looks confused and says, “But you told me to never switch sword hands.” Achilles smiles, saying, “When you master that sword you won’t be taking advice from me.” Same principal here. You don’t learn the rules to be beholden to them, but to be free of them. In grade school, in high school, I learned what made up a proper sentence. Now my fiction is filled with sentence fragments. But I know why they are there and…if there is no reason, they are replaced with the sentences I learned how to make.
SHOW DON’T TELL
If “no passive language” is a basic rule of strong writing, “show don’t tell” is a basic rule of strong storytelling. It’s a very simple idea, but you will struggle with all it’s possibilities for the rest of your storytelling careers. Always go back over a draft and see what you can change from a “tell” to a “show.”
“Nick walked into the room. He was angry. He was angry because Josh drank all his rum and the bottle was empty now.”
“Nick stomped up to Josh, white knuckles squeezing the now empty bottle.”
The first set of sentences directly tells things to the audience that can be insinuated through better storytelling (they are also sinfully redundant). The second example uses a stronger verb, and the audience sees things that let them know Nick is angry.
Sometimes, showing is a matter of finding unnecessary adjectives, and finding ways of illustrating them without clumsily stopping a story’s flow with the types of character descriptions and exposition that belongs in an outline or treatment (not the story itself).
Other times, it’s a good rule for dialogue. People talk in circles, rarely straight lines. Listen. Direct statements are few and far between. Sometimes this is out of deceit. More often, people politely circle something or find it easier to indirectly say things that are of a painful nature. Most often, people communicate on many levels and need not directly say complete ideas to get the message across (especially when talking with people they know). Go through dialogue and see what you can take out and insinuate with fewer words. It’ll likely flow better, more natural.
Treat first person stories like dialogue (many of them are…the character talks to an unknown person, a friend, a psychiatrist, a tape recorder, etc…). You can insinuate things without spelling them out.
For example, I wrote a story where a character is tracking…something, across the US. He doesn’t rest and he’s suffering sleep deprivation and he’s not all too sure what is hallucination and what is supernatural. I could write a paragraph that spells it all out and tells all…
“I’ve been driving for a long time. I’m suffering serious sleep deprivation. The stops just fly by. I’m not sure where I am. I don’t know who I am. I feel disoriented. I think I’m in Illinois. I pull into a gas station and fill up my tank and purshase a cola and a paper. The paper says that the police found four more dead prostitutes. I must be on the right track in catching that thing.”
That paragraph is tedious and telling. What I actually wrote, contains very few direct statements on the protagonist’s state of mind. I thought the story was better served with flashes of sensory input, placing the reader behind the protagonists eyes, rather than making them the recipients of a second hand account. Why tell the audience that the narrator is disoriented, when I can, instead, make the very text disorienting. So the story began thus:
“The white lines whip by in whippoorwill laughter. They know where they’re going. I don’t.
Refuel, buy a cola, use the bathroom. This is the pattern. This is my existence.
Reduced Speed Zone.
Gas is ten cents cheaper. Cola is forty cents more. A paper says four more prostitutes were found dead last night. I’m on the right trail.
What state am I in? The license plates say Illinois. Who am I? The license plates refuse to say.”
Much better. The ambiguity (a whole different subject in and of itself) heightens the suspense of stories. Ambiguity is good.
Here’s another sample paragraph. This first one, however, is the “show” paragraph:
“Mascara oozes down Celina’s cheek, painting depression. Mutely witnessing her tears repose a multitude of exercise videos, magazines promising easy beauty secrets, and bottles of diet pills of questionable effect and healthiness. The bath water is warm, the razor fills her hand, and a note explaining all sits at her desk.”
It’s likely you understand what is going on here. However, I never say the word “cry” or mention that this character has low self esteem stemming from self image problems. I never even say the word “suicide”. The paragraph is much more emotionally poignant than say:
“Celina was crying and the tears ran down her cheek, messing up her mascara. She looked in the mirror. She didn’t like herself, thought she was too overweight. She never seemed to look like the women in the magazines, no matter how many products, pills, and devices she tried. She ran a warm bath and found her razor, planning on committing suicide. Then she placed a suicide note, that she had written earlier, on the desk.”
Here I spell everything out. It sounds accurate, but clunky. I get the same info across in the first paragraph, even without saying “suicide.” I can do that by pressing certain levers of reaction that readers have. We come from a similar culture and I know what images and sense input will make them think “suicide.” Always look for the levers and strings.
SHOW DON’T TELL. Make that you motto. Keep it in mind when you write…but most especially keep it in mind when you go back for a new draft. Showing involves much more finesse as a storytelling form.