WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 4 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.
PART 4 – SHOW, DON’T TELL
This aspect of writing is difficult to explain because it’s so subjective. We know it must be done; but where, when, and especially how to do it is the challenge.
Sol Stein, author of “How To Grow A Novel”, points out that from the time we’re very young, we become accustomed to hearing stories, whether it’s our parents reading to us, schoolmates repeating tales, or gossips in the workplace. The ones we enjoy the most are the ones we can best envision.
Our desire to “see” stories also comes from watching visual media such as television and films. We all know how engaging they can be even if the content is hollow. As our culture becomes more accustomed to watching stories, writers must follow suit, making our novels even more visual. That’s why so many contemporary books are written in a “filmic” style, where the plot and action are laid out like scenes in a movie. It’s also why the descriptive style of novels from earlier centuries is no longer in favor.
The “show, don’t tell” complaint is often attributed to writing that is:
o Too passive – is, was, were; he said/she said
o Too vague – it lacks sufficient or crucial detail
o Too secretive – it’s important but the writer holds back
o Too detailed – it’s unimportant but the writer goes on at length
o Too repetitive – often stated many times, or in different ways.
o Too informational – a fact dump that reads like a manual
o Too one-dimensional – we hear it but we don’t see it (dialogue)
When we begin to write, we tend to focus on laying out the plot and introducing our characters. However, people want to read stories, not reports or a catalog of events. Once you’ve completed your first draft, go over it, starting with your first chapter, and look for places to illustrate your story with words.
HOW TO FIX THE PROBLEM
• Think of yourself as the director or actor in the scene. What would you tell the character to do, or what would you do, feel, or experience in that scene? Think body language, emotions, external factors (cold, bright, musty?).
• Imagine you’re a set dresser, lighting person, or costume designer. What would the setting look like? How would the character be dressed, and what statement would it make about him? Pick two details that would symbolize the look or atmosphere you want to create in the scene.
• Examine how you’ve introduced your protagonist and any other characters that appear in your first chapter. How should your readers feel about them at this point and will those feelings change in the course of the story? Do your words generate that impression?
• Don’t flesh out minor characters. Describe them in a sentence or phrase, or if their “title” is enough for us to visualize them, one word. What characteristic would be most telling about them, relating to their role in the story?
• Look for those passive dialogue tags – he said, she uttered, Jane asked, Bob queried – and think about how you could substitute a small bit of action instead. This can help us visualize the character at that moment, move the story forward, or do both.
Here’s a chance to use that passive description. Sum up your main character in one declarative sentence:
o Barry wants respect, not pity
o Lisa has low self-esteem
o Jack’s tough exterior hides an emotional Achilles heel
o Edmund’s weak social skills prevent acknowledgment of his scientific genius
Next, create a scenario that would illustrate this trait:
o Barry would rather search through dumpsters than beg
o Lisa accomplishes 98 percent of her project and berates herself for not doing better
o Jack snaps at everyone but shows extraordinary sensitivity when interviewing a child abuse victim
o Edmund tries to explain his breakthrough to top management, but they ignore him and direct questions to his lab partner
Now expand that scenario. “Show, don’t tell” involves more than just seeing the action. Go beyond the visuals to include other senses – smells, sounds, tastes, and tactile feelings. Demonstrate emotional responses with physical actions, especially when they relate to the characters’ external and internal goals. Whatever keeps them from the one thing they want most should elicit the most powerful descriptions, for this conflict is the core of your story.
Compare the results of this exercise to what you currently have written in your first chapter.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE
There are times when passive descriptions are appropriate in fiction:
• A simple statement of fact: It was June 12; my teacher’s name is Mrs. Lopez, George Washington was our first President
• Situations where list-like descriptions are called for, like a police interrogation (“He was short, stocky, about 150 pounds, with red hair….”).
• Dialogue that suits the character (a character who speaks passively will come off as a boring, colorless individual, which is great if the character is boring and colorless – just don’t make him a primary character!)
• When a report is preferable to poetry. There will be times when you’ll want to describe the blazing sun beating down on his already reddened face, sending rivulets of sweat streaming from his brow. Then there will be times when you’ll want to say it was hot.
• When it’s preferable to using substitute words – uttered instead of said, or queried instead of asked. ‘He said’ may be passive, but many writers consider it less obtrusive than other alternatives.
In our final installment, we’ll give our left brain a rest when we channel our creative side to write DIALOGUE