Monday, January 9, 2012

Show and Tell

Ironic that the craft of storytelling has nothing to do with telling you anything anymore.  These days, as I'm sure you know, fiction writing is all about showing you what happens not telling you.  I was reminded of this the other day when I got a look at an old draft of the novel I'm writing.  The draft goes out of its way to describe the town that the main characters are visiting.  None of this adds to the story; it is all background information and reads like a travel log which tells you which parts of town to visit to enjoy your stay.

Ick.  All of that is useless text and will not be in the new draft.  But it got me thinking how far my writing has come since I wrote that old draft.  I now write small scenes, as if the story was a play or a movie and then string them together.  That seems to work.  The benefit of that approach is I can focus on small bits at a time and when they are ready put them together and polish them into something larger.  Often I need to read the scenes together and do some editing to make them all fit as a unified whole but that's okay because by the time I get to that stage, my focus is bigger and broader.

The other benefit of writing scenes is it is harder to lapse into telling the reader anything.  Oh, sure, I can tell you how a character feels, or what he looks like -- how else are you going to know if I don't -- but I only resort to describing feelings when a character is alone.  If there is another character around, then this information is perfect for some dialogue and a scene all by itself.  That way, I tell you less and show you more.

Is it dull and melodramatic? I don't know.  Usually my characters aren't revealing deep personal feelings, but rather feelings about things connected to the plot.  (Oh sorry, I forgot, some of you think plot is a four-letter curse word, so let's say that characters are revealing feelings about events that have transpired since the story began).  Example:  the main characters meet a woman on the road, Nancy.  She is being attacked by some bandits.  They rush to help her (they are heroes, after all) and the bandits flee.

Nancy does not trust them because this attack is the second one she's suffered through in the last few days.  In the first days, she lost her traveling companions.  But the main characters convince Nancy to come with them since they are all traveling in the same direction.

Later, the main characters begin to learn are few things about Nancy that are odd and makes them not trust her.  They discuss these feelings privately.  I do this to build tension about Nancy.  Eventually the truth comes out but not until much later.

All this being said, it is still easy to fall into the trap of telling.  I've done this where suddenly a memory is triggered and you are telling the reader about this.  A better technique is to show the memory.  That, of course, takes longer and is harder and is generally why I don't do it.  In fact in just about all cases, when I lapse into telling, it is because I've gotten lazy.  So if you find a section where you are telling, rip it out and rewrite it by showing the same thing.  Your readers will thank you for it later.

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