DECONSTRUCTING THE STORY
2. Show Don’t Tell
In my second installment for the Wordcraft Series, I am expanding on Characterization. Mainly because I suck at it and that's what I spent the last few weeks reading up about. Now before any of you would-be flamers itching to throw the first fireball at me start - save yo' energy. I am well aware that my personal work available is riddled with every single thing I mention this article in abundance (hell in every fic I contradict with my articles on wordcraft), but yanno what? THAT'S WHY I'M WRITING THIS - to learn and then share. It's cheaper than paying for another Masters. So sit back and get some free edumacation.
I grew up in an extremely strict Filipino household where words in themselves held no weight. My father could care less if I planned to take over the world, get a haircut or raise my calculus grade; his main point being that none of these grand plans had come to fruition yet. Nowadays this mentality that includes old adages such as “actions speak louder than words” and “bullshit walks - movement talks” combine to make the one thing I live my Ficsterian, Author and Real lives by:
Show Don't Tell.
Sounds easy right? Y'all are nodding your heads yes. I snort. Guess what? It's not. I battle with this constantly, sometimes arising from the batcave victorious, sometimes not. That's okay. The war is still raging and I am definitely not down for the count. As difficult as it is to get into that dream college, find that perfect career or even land a significant other who isn't broke, jobless, riddled with “personal” issues or gay (Unless you swing the other way, then the operative word here would be straight.); I can guarantee that having your fictional character show themselves rather than just having you tell the reader about them is infinitely more difficult.
Why? Because it's easier not to.
It's simple to do this:
Jilly is a late-twenties single girl who hates her job, wishes she was ten pounds lighter and wants to stab her perfect sister's eyes out.
But what does this passage do? Inspire us to sympathize and want to know more about Jilly? Um, not so much – well not me anyways. She actually sounds a bit like the emo friend nobody digs. But if we show the reader why Jilly is this way, they will establish an emotional connection to the character.
Jilly stands in the bridal boutique, her left hand grips dull scissors in preparation to assist cutting the hem of her sister's ostentatious gown. As she bends over, the buttons at the bodice of her own dress stretch, making her want to retch up the burger and fries inhaled at lunch. Her muscles protest against bending down, a product of her late night at the bar slinging drinks for fifty cent tips and lewd catcalls. As Jilly is about to snip, her sister criticizes that it is not the right length. She looks at her sister's exposed calf and thinks how nice a gash would look right there.
Now we see through Jilly's actions a bit about the character. The author didn't tell us a damn thing. We know she is old enough to bartend and her sister is a demanding bride. We know she is fed up and should have ordered a salad in hindsight. But no one told us these details, we were shown. You get the picture painted.
You may still be wondering what's so hard about this. Well it took me about thirty seconds to write that first passage, but I had to think about the second. I pulled up a scene in my mind and wrote as it played out, making the language act rather than explain.
The Language of Telling
I am guilty of being a teller. I work constantly at revising each draft of anything I write in the ultimate goal that each nod of the head, dialog spoken or flip of auburn hair is something the reader is watching happen rather than hearing about. My beta has a field day with this and there have been multiple times where I have had at least ten comments screaming “TELLING WORDS” threatening to squeeze my typing digits into submission.
So what is with the language? How does one go about activating it?
By saying “No! I will not go quietly into the word abyss, but I will rail with the force of a thousand verbs!” Alright, it doesn't have to be that dramatic, but you need to watch a couple of key items.
• Thems Tellin' Words Chickadee: Words like had, was, were, is, are, have tell the reader what is established. There is no building or visualizing of a scene. We do not walk in the character's shoes when these words are predominant. Instead, we sit across from them during a boring tea listening them talk about nothing that interests us because we weren't there. Now there is a place for this passive voice, but it should never ever in a million years be the main tool in forming any sort of character or plot development.
• Victims of Action: In telling any story, the verb is your best friend. You should treat it like a treasured lover and caress it continuously and at times; it's okay to get a bit dirty with it. The best way to describe this theory is with example:
She was running toward her lover's outstretched arms. She had not seen in him so long that her heart had been aching since he left.
She ran toward her lover's outstretched arms, the ache in her heart dwindled with each pound of the pavement.
In the first sentence, the scene played out in a passive voice, telling the reader what and why. The second sentence puts the reader in the scene with strong verb usage and a tighter sentence structure with less words being used. Clean comes to mind. It's just a smoother read, building the tension until our tragic heroine reaches her love's arms for blessed relief.
On top of that, the usage of running versus ran and aching versus ached lessens the power of the verb itself. Now here me out on this for all you ing-ers, there are two excellent reasons why ing-ing should be used with moderation. The first is that you add an unnecessary syllable to a word and can break up flow with just that one little breath it takes to adding yet another sound. The second is that ing words start to look and sound eerily similar when there is an abundance of them. If someone is always walking, running or chasing, the reader is going to lose the momentum of the scene and ultimately the purpose of the actions. Booooooo!
• Mud: Yup, those little qualifiers: must have, used to, kind of, might have etc, those little devils are the mud dried on the bottom of your favorite pair of Nine West Motorcycle Boots you paid two hundred bucks for. Why the hate mud? Well crap, the stuff just cakes up an otherwise clean sentence. It makes the prose heavy with what – oh yeah – CRAP. Qualifiers also diminishes desire and you all know how I feel about that.
• TORNADO SIRENS!!!!: Alright, in complete contradiction of my previous three points above I am giving you this word of advice. DON’T LET THE VERBS RUN AMUCK! It’s bad for business, just as a tornado ripping through your property is. A light breeze, like a well placed verb, on a sunny day is lovely, but when every other word in a sentence is causing some sort of action, well talk about leaving your house in shambles in a verb tornado’s wake. There is such a thing as word abuse and we will call the authorities on you if need be. Please don’t force the HAND. Show some temperance and judgment and shut me the hell up.
Now I'm not saying passive words don't serve a very useful function in fiction writing, but they have their place – when the subject of the verb is receiving the action. At times, it is essential to establish a situation, scene or detail through telling. If the passive voice was utterly useless, then many a great work would not exist. Sometimes things just have to be told and that is perfectly fine, but just don't tell me how your heroine overcame insurmountable odds to triumph over that nasty bitch to win the heart of the misunderstood hottie in geek's clothing. Then I'd be bored, just like I've bored people in the past with my own passive voice. Think of ing-ing in terms of the economy and your own pocketbooks – be frugal.
What'd He Say? What's He Wearing? Have You Any Clue to His Thoughts?
Ahhhh. The descriptive prose - the time of any story where we demonstrate to our readers what the character is thinking, saying or how they are looking. This too can be put into action in the pursuit of having one of our characters fully fleshed out.
• Think: Internal monologue intermingled with action is always my preference to read. This is unique to fiction over other forms of storytelling (movies, theater). There the players have to physically act out thoughts. As a writer, you get a big kiss from Jesus here. You can write in the thoughts, making them plain as a newborn day for God and Country to see. Whether the thoughts are abstract, leading to reader interpretation, or bold as brass; a writer has the unique ability to put the reader directly into the character's head. Yes, this can be abused, but for the crafty author, this is the death blow in their arsenal of weapons.
Haven't you ever thought about what a character is thinking when you are watching them on screen? Say Admiral Adama (yes, this is a BSG reference) is gazing into his sifter of whiskey, oblivious to all but his own thoughts. We are left to wonder at what said thoughts actually entail. Is he thinking about Starbuck's reemergence into the fleet after her supposed death? Is he thinking about his son's new position within the fleet as a politician? Is he thinking about the demise of the human race? Is he questioning his sexual prowess in bed that morning with Laura Roslin? I don't know. What I do know is that if I was writing this scene, I could devote paragraphs to contemplation as he swigs second-rate distilled alcohol in one go and slamming his empty sifter onto the bar, alerting the server to keep the good shit coming. All the while, the reader has the opportunity to stay in his mind's eye. Now that is the kind of thought that goes down smooth.
• Talk: A conversation between key players in any story can shift focus, enlighten and propel forward. A character, even unidentified, can be obvious to the reader through speech pattern and word selection. That in itself should tell you how much dialog effects characterization. What they say, how they say it and even tone (as explained with all those rasps, grunts, sneers and any multitude of adverb abuses) will help to shape your character just as much as any action – after all speech is just another form of action, no?
As much as I hate to do this, one of the examples that pops to mind immediately is J.R. Ward, author of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series (Sniff, so what if I like a bit of the cheese? Shit tastes good). She has established her hard-core take no bullshit bodacious vampire beefcakes and turned them into characters with very notable speech. Whether using a distinct northeastern vernacular or harsh phrases such as “Fuck you very much”, Ward has made each vamp leap from the page through dialog alone. What's even better is that she is consistent about their word usage. You can pretty much guarantee Phury will wax semi-eloquent between cursing, Vishous will be silent with the odd snide comment, Rhage will exercise verbal diarrhea whenever possible, Zhadist will be scathing and frightening and Wrath will command with a few short curt words. Now that is telling this little street cred-less reader a whole lot about a character. Shit now I gotta go reread the damn series. And don't be telling my dirty little secret now.
• Look: OOOOOHHHHH! He has SEA MOSS EYES and SUNKISSED HAIR. Sure, they all do; which is why we love a well-described character when it comes t o appearance. This can be done in multiple fashions. A writer can tell the reader in a set up scene (boooo), can mesh it in with an observation or (my personal favorite) throw in descriptive detail during action. Let’s give it a whirl shall we?
I stared at her dirt after rain eyes brimming over with tears onto her red-splotched face. She used the back of her hand to wipe away at the wetness. She turned away from me, her limp brown hair shielding the pain playing across her face. I tried to reach out, to grab her arm, but only came up with a fistful of her blue sweater.
Oh the heart fail (and a touch of that purpley-prose)! Watching this tragic scene – I'm going with break-up (The chick is two seconds from being left on the dirt floor of the forest. Can I tell you all the ways that would not happen to me? Seriously.) - play out before us, but all the while as each word builds the stage, the actual appearance of the girl fills in, giving us a clear vision. This example mixes observation (common with the first person POV) and action. The scene is never lost in the description.
So there you go - tips and tricks to astound your betas and endear your readers. Go forth and prosper authors! Show us what you got and tell me where to stuff it by shoving that big proverbial middle finger at the Teller.
I'll see you on the flipside.
I've got two tips fer you folks:
1. My new grammatical best friend: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (and if I don't always play by her rules, she at least makes punctuating hilarious)
2. Adverbs: Use the ing trick with all those ly adverbs – mysteriously, wildly, furtively etc. CUT THEM ALL! Or as many as you see fit. By cutting an adverb you can sharpen a sentence and decrease repetitiveness. Many times adverbs are just typical cases of abuse masquerading as verb enhancement. Well, if I know something is devastating such as a train accident and there is a survivor sobbing on the scene, does it bear mentioning that the woman's sobs are coming out erratically, uncontrollably or loudly? Um, nah. I get the picture if you just show me there is a woman who sobs off to the side. The human mind is capable of these imaginings. Now feel free to ignore this bit, but I find nine out of ten times, the verb doesn't need enhancement and if there is a problem with the verb – find a better one. But hey, some claim that the adverb is the spice of fiction life. So take what you will.
Smellyia is the administrator for this blog and is completely unqualified to be writing on anything that has to do with wordcraft. She abuses all manner of was, were, are, is, might have been, used to, kind of ect. She also is guilty of clutching ings & lys like a talisman. You get the picture.Oh and she is currently busy Twittering for TLYDF - supposedly.