Nobody tells this to people who are beginners…
29 Monday Aug 2011
29 Monday Aug 2011
07 Thursday Apr 2005
We destroyed the passive language scourge in the first lesson. We went over the “show don’t tell rule” on the second go. If that rule seems confusing, it’s only because it has many facets. It’s really as simple as it sounds…it just has endless applications.
Tonight, we shall invigorate the adorably charged synapses of our gooey gray brains, with a discourse on metaphors and similes.
Just a quick refresher – a simile is a sort of comparison, referring to one thing by talking about another (your big clue, in a simile, is the word “like”):
“I will seek out redemption like a coke fiend’s blistering tongue searches for the last contaminated grain.”
A metaphor, drops the comparison, the first item is the second item:
“His black hole eyes swallowed light and joy from all he surveyed.”
As a very general storytelling rule, metaphors are superior to similes. Word’s like “like” stop a reader and remind them, for a second, that they are reading. The smoother transition of metaphors keeps a reader immersed. And there is something more strangely or abstractly interesting, when the thing compared, simply exists as the second thing…it’s more poetic somehow. As Virgil would say to Dante, “We are now entering the sightless zone.” We are entering those areas of writing that don’t have hard and fast explanations as to why certain things work…it’s subjective. Watch your footing.
But something about metaphors is better. Take a look. In my short story, “The Halloween Tree,” I wrote this sentence:
“My memories fluttered in my head, like bats afraid of the light.”
Kind of a cool image, I thought. But some of my peers suggested changing it into a metaphor. I groaned…but did the work, and came up with this:
“Bat-winged recollections flutter in my head, afraid of the light.”
Read the two sentences out loud. The second flows better. And let that be a lesson. Part of your drafting process should be, after finishing any draft, to read it out loud to yourself, as if you have an audience (or even get an audience). Half the stuff that you realize you need to fix, gets noticed when the words hit your vocal chords.
The image is also more sophisticated. Instead of, “yeah…my memories are kind of like bats…isn’t that cool?” No! My memories ARE bats, every image bubble of my collective recollections has membrane wings. It’s more surreal. It’s a hell-of-a-lot cooler.
Subjective rules have endless exceptions. Sometimes it just sounds right to write a simile. Sometimes it sounds more natural in speech. For example – noir detective stories are filled with great similes (usually in hard boiled voice overs). So, if you were writing something with that flavor, you might do well to fill in a lot of similes: “The dame was bad, all bad. She used men like cigarettes, taking one too many drags before smearing them to ashes.”
Similes have there place. But, go through your story. Look at your “likes” and see how you might go about making them metaphors. In that process, just like when you force yourself to follow any other rule or limitation, will force some interesting sentences out of you that you didn’t know you had.
04 Monday Apr 2005
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.
01 Friday Apr 2005
Attention word weavers. Let’s do some writing lessons. In part, as a reminder to myself – and in part, because several people, as of late, have given me bits of their written work to comment on – I thought it would be easier to put some of the more common advice here. This stuff is basic. But, in this craft/art, basic doesn’t mean least important. No, no. These are the overlooked bricks on which word castles tumble to the crushing surf of jaded editors’ trash cans below. As a writer, you will not make yourself “professional” with fancy tricks, however, you can make yourself seem amateurish by ignoring the basics.
This is it. Ground zero. Every other bit of writing wisdom gets stacked on this one thing. But it gets ignored so often. The good news is, if you fix this, you’ll see results immediately. Running this single comb through your drafts will make your writing noticeably better.
Tear out your passive language. These are the verbs that are tired and don’t do a lot. I’ve already used a bunch of them just typing this much. Words like: are, is, would, will, be (or worse…“will be”), were, am, was, etc.
These things piss off editors. They bore readers (even if the reader is not consciously aware of it).
You should always try and find more active, more vivid verbs.
“Josh was running.”
“Was” (and all of its flaccid brothers and sisters) is an unnecessary verb. It’s fat. Make like Lorena Bobbit and cut it off! Now! These are the verbs that mean “to be,” that is, “to exist.” Based on the physics of our universe (which you will follow, more or less, even if you write the wildest of Science Fiction stories) if Josh is running…then Josh exists. You don’t need to tell the reader this.
That is a much crisper sentence. “Ran” is a much more interesting verb than “was.” Don’t bury your verbs under dead language just to tell your readers that your subjects exist. They already know.
“I am successful.”
“Joshua was being attacked by the evil penguins in his head.”
That sentence fucking blows! Notice, I didn’t say, “That sentence is blowing.” I said it “fucking blows.” That’s active. It fucking blows rancid chunks. That’s descriptive. In the semi-autobiographical sentence about evil mind penguins, I not only burried “attacked” under “was”…but I make the subject of the sentence the object of the real action. Don’t do that. “Joshua was attacked,” is better…but still passive, Josh is still having something done to him. Having something done is less interesting than doing. You can fix this by making the aggressor the subject…or making the original subject react more vividly. So…
“The evil penguins of the mind pecked and scratched Joshua.”
“Joshua slammed his head into the wall, to stop the pecking of the evil mind penguins.”
Notice how my new sentences were not only corrected, but elaborated? This is the other benefit of following these basic rules, they force a challenge upon you – the challenge forces you to come up with things you would not otherwise have thought of (much like self imposed rules a poet might assign herself for a given poem).
Even if a verb is not technically passive, they can usually be improved upon. Go over your sentences and see if you can use a stronger verb.
“Jimmy walked through the room, looking for women.”
Not bad. At least I didn’t say, “The women were being looked for by Jimmy” (barf!). But “walked,” while an active verb, is kind of bland. It’s the most basic locomotive verb…no flavor. Let’s try…
“Jimmy sloped through the room, eyes hungry for skirt wearing treats.”
Much better. “Sloped” sounds cooler and is a more descriptive verb. Notice how it puts a more specific context to the sentence. It makes Jimmy more animalistic, wolf-like. It inspired me to improve the next part of the sentence. Now, he’s not just looking, his eyes are “hungry.” Jimmy turns much more sinister, just by sloping instead of walking. Had I gone with the original sentence, I’d have to spend a whole other sentence (or two) telling the audience that Jimmy is unsavory. But why tell when you can show…with one sentence (one verb).
OK…three tricks are a good start. (1)Get rid of passive verbs (especially the incestuous family of “to be”). (2)Never have an action “being done” to something…just have the aggressor do. (3)Always look for more vivid verbs. These are of course guidelines at best (there are no rules in creative mediums). Some sentences are just going to have “was” in them. But…take out an old short story, improve those three things (it’ll take you ten minutes) and your story will be many times better. Oh…see…I just used passive language…sorry…I mean: Your stories shall howl in clearer tones.