Sunday, February 22, 2015

When to “Tell”

The answer isn’t “never.” Whether to “show” or “tell” is situation-specific. Although definitions of “telling” are vague and varied, many novelists still fear this “writing crime.” Yet view “telling” as frustrating your readers, and you can differentiate “bad telling” from “good.” After all, “telling” makes up half the word for sharing a story.

Storytelling unites “showing” and “telling.” Readers want the juicy parts in scene—without commentary from the narrator. As Anton Chekhov put it, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” So in certain instances you really shouldn’t “tell”:

~ Judgments.
Rather than “telling” readers that the dog is “ugly,” describe the skinny, flea-covered mongrel that’s lost most of his hair. Let readers decide what’s “ugly.”

~ Belaboring what’s obvious or repeating what you already “showed.”
            Is the character panting? Don’t add that she’s also “breathing heavily.”

~ Summarizing the fun parts.
If we’ve waited for three hundred pages to see if they’ll go to bed, please don’t say, “She turned off the light, and they both had the time of their lives.” “Show” us their pleasure with a voyeuristic but tasteful peek inside the bedroom.

~ Oversimplifying emotions.
Avoid abstractions like “angry,” “sad,” or “ecstatic.” Use body language. Use metaphor. Reflect the complex, inconsistent, and fleeting nature of feelings.

But in other instances, readers want “good telling”:

* For worldbuilding.
Whether fantasy, sci fi, or bankrupt Detroit, describe the setting where the action occurs. Sometimes it takes too many words to imply a social structure, moral code, time period, or atmosphere. If so, just explain.

* For transition
Svelte, sophistication transitions are simply lovely. But every so often you need to be clear and causal. Because readers need to understand.

* For voice.
Terror of “telling” would eliminate sentences like this one:  “Her correspondence had been like the pumping of a heart into a severed artery, wild and incessant at first, then slowing down with a kind of muscular reluctance to a stream that became a trickle and finally ceased; the heart had stopped.” -- Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Tip: Storytelling boils down to knowing when to “show” and “when” to “tell.”

How else can you deliver the whole story at the fastest pace with the most fun possible?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Emoticon versus Emotion

Here’s an irony. Many of us can’t resist decorating our emails, texts, perhaps even blogs with silly little faces that presumably capture emotion. For casual communication? No problem. But just as emoticons never summon the dynamic complexity of human response, characters aching with the agony of anguish never summon much except irritation.

Some things about story remain the same forever. It will always be true, as painter Paul Cezanne put it, that “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.”

Yet if emotions don’t change over time, art does. Like emotions, it’s always on the move. Novel readers no longer respond favorably to blatant, oversimplified description. Charles Dickens, born about two centuries back, is still—and will always be—a great writer. But today’s novelists don’t get to remind us that “‎Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” (Great Expectations)

That’s because, as writer and writing coach Jessica Morrell explains, “Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our stories evoke meaning or a responsive chord in a reader.” For better or worse, certain plots and word choices no longer elicit the same “responsive chords.”

Our world has changed, and our novels along with it. In White Oleander (1999) Janet Fitch says

That was the thing about words, they were clear and specific--chair, eye, stone--but when you talked about feelings, words were too stiff, they were this and not that, they couldn't include all the meanings. In defining, they always left something out.

Labeling emotions cages them, diminishes them, makes them less than they are. That causes readers to feel less than they might. What’s a writer to do?

~ Use dialogue. Confrontations between characters—including the subtext of what they never say—both mimic some of the most intense moments in real life and reveal the motivation for character choices.

~ Capture the reactions of other characters. Response to the behavior of the protagonist or antagonist is a shrewd away to advance the plot, so long as you avoid all those abstract, oversimplified words like “sad,” “happy,” “perplexed,” and the even more painful ones like “yearning” and “ecstasy.” They have the same impact as a heaving bosom.

~ “Show” emotion through action—and not just tears, shrugging, or exiting.

~ Try symbolism. Might your character realistically compare inertia to a stone wall, with only one way through? Might your character overeat or starve? Learn boxing or sink into a stupor?

Tip: Give emotions the complexity they deserve so your readers can experience the emotions they deserve.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Time, Tides—and Writers

Waves and tides ebb and flow, occasionally punctuated by unpredictable upheavals, as anyone knows from standing in the surf or gliding across it.

Tip: Pleasure comes from both patterns and unexpected disruption of them.

Most writers discover the rhythms of language one at a time. The most obvious one escalates from conflict to climax. But like those varieties of ocean waves, novels offer many interacting rhythms.

~ The protagonist’s journey
Christopher Vogler famously argued that the rhythm of all fiction, from screenplay to novel, comes from a hero reluctantly agreeing to confront a troubled world and change it. Ideally, this rhythm climaxes with self-knowledge for the hero and justice for the world.

~ An arc for each sub-plot.
The best novels intersect several interconnected journeys. For each of these, relief disappears over and over until the final pages offer resolution—or failure.

~ Scene versus sequel or summary.
Regardless of what you call whatever’s out of scene, every novel has a basic rhythm of drama, condensation, drama, condensation. The trick is creating seamless flow.

~ Rhythm within the sentence, paragraph, scene.
Humans appreciate three-part structure: issue, development, resolution. Happily, you can employ this to revise fiction at every level.

That’s lots of patterns. Now what?

·         * Notice. Just considering the relationships between patterns helps you see your manuscript more clearly, so you can revise it more effectively.

·         * Vary. You want tension on every page, yes. But do you want all tension all the time? No.

·        *  Accentuate. The fun of patterns is enjoying relief until—whoosh—a monster wave changes the landscape. That gets everyone’s attention. Use emphasis to reveal significance.

·         * Surprise. The reader didn’t see that breaker coming any more than the character did. Astonishment is among fiction’s greatest joys. But not by cheating. Every gigantic groundswell must feel probable. In fiction that means you provided a clear yet subtle hint a while back.

Pattern-recognition originally helped the earliest humans distinguish tall grass from predator, something to eat from something to avoid. In fiction, pattern and disruption control everything from aesthetics to momentum, tension, and empathy. Use the rhythms of your fiction to make waves.