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Back In The Booth

It feels like I just had Tollbooth duty… hey, I did just have Tollbooth duty….with a brief break to read Carrie Jones’ wonderful posts on dialogue last week. Barely enough time to run to the fridge, grab a cool drink, and zip up to Vermont for Children’s Literature New England-

a phenomenal conference with speakers like M. T. Anderson, Janice Harrington, Arthur Levine and Sarah Ellis. A bunch of Tollboothers were there too…Helen Hemphill, Sarah Sullivan, Sarah Aronson, and me. Carrie, Zu, Kelly, Stephanie and Liz we missed you!
I learned a lot… but that’s not what I’ll be discussing this week. (Those speakers’ ideas are their own. In my opinion, it’s not my right, or the right of any other conference attendee, to blog extensively about the substance of a conference lecture.)
This week I’m going back to Showing and Telling
When last we joined our intrepid craft blogger
She… er…..  I was sharing tips for escaping the slush pile. Tip number one was SHOW DON’T TELL. It’s the most common flaw in manuscripts doomed to sink to the bottom of the slush and stay there. But I said there are times it’s okay or even preferable to tell. But explaining it is a little complicated. Back then we didn’t have the time to do the topic justice—so I’m in the booth for another week to dive deep into showing and telling.
 
A quick review
 
Let’s remind ourselves about the difference between showing and telling

This is telling- Frank loved candy so much that his mother couldn’t buy a bag of peppermints without Frank ripping the bag open in the car on the way home.
The narrator makes an assertion and sometimes backs it up with detail. A simpler version is Frank loved candy.
 
This is showing-
Frank sat in the hot back seat. The smell of peppermint perfumed the air. Mom wouldn’t notice if he had one tiny piece of candy. He ripped open the bag and pulled out a fistful.
The writer creates a scene that reveals information and advances the plot. There's description of what is happening but not a flat assertion that someone is acting in some way. 

With showing it’s up to the reader to make inferences to understand the facts. Here the reader evaluates Frank’s behavior. He is a bit greedy and defies his mother. Without the words “Frank loved candy” being used we understand exactly how much Frank likes candy. We also know a lot more about his character, how some things that are important (food) and unimportant (Mom's instructions) to him and how he makes decisions.
Because the writer puts us in Frank’s skin, smelling the same peppermint air, we are invested in his story.
 
Usually showing is better than telling because it’s more interesting and engaging. But there are some times a writer needs to tell. Telling is a specialty tool in your writer’s tool box. If you use it just when it’s needed telling will serve you well. If you tell all or most of the time your writing will be dull dull dull and you will appear to lack the skill to pull a reader in.
 
Over the last week as I thought about when telling is the right thing to do I decided that it boils down to a question of PACE.



Pace It Off

When I started to get serious about writing I knew my early novel attempts had problems with pacing. I wasn’t exactly sure what pace was, but I could tell mine staggered and lurched.
 
Pace has lots of elements- how action moves along through a scene and chapter to chapter, how tension builds, and in the instance of showing versus telling, how language moves sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph and page to page.
 
Obviously, writing the same kinds of sentences over and over gets dull.
 
For example:
 
Bob was a nice boy. He had a dog and a fish. He lived in a house. Bob was in the third grade.
 
Those sentences all happen to be telling so they’re doubly dull. But all showing through an entire novel- even through an entire chapter… heck an entire page would get boring too. Everything would have to same cadence. The same pace. 

Maybe this isn't the best example because these sentences are already varied as far as length and structure (and thus pace) but let's go back to the showing example and add a snippet of telling-

Frank sat in the hot back seat. The smell of peppermint perfumed the air. Mom wouldn’t notice if he had one tiny piece of candy. He ripped open the bag and pulled out a fistful. Candy was good. Sweet.

The writer (me) added two short telling sentences to the end of the paragraph. They summarize and highlight meaning, and because they are short and direct they slow the reader to act almost like periods.

In a novel sometimes you walk, sometimes you pause, and sometimes you run through the story. Telling summarizes. It’s a storyteller’s sprint. Write with all your gears working.
 
Just don’t do it too much or you’ll lose your breath. Your prose will collapse from high speed boredom and die on the page.
Tomorrow we’ll get into specifics about how to use telling to speed up, highlight or transition. And as the week moves on we’re going to dive into a literary hourglass and explore other ways to play with time in fiction.
 
Tami Lewis Brown

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
kymbrunner
May. 12th, 2008 11:40 am (UTC)
I think pacing is one of the hardest things to critique in your own work without taking a substantive break from it. It's easily identifiable in another person's work, which leads to yawning and peeking ahead to see when the dull topic is going to end, but not so easy in your own material.

I guess that's one reason you need an honest critiquer who will inform you that the pages moved as quickly as a waterlogged worm on the sidewalk. :)
tamilewisbrown
May. 12th, 2008 11:50 am (UTC)
Great point!
The pace can be deadly slow, or in the case of a lot that I write, zip through important things so quickly that a reader never has a chance to get their bearings. Often a great opportunity to strike an emotional cord is lost. I can't agree more how much a wise trusted reader helps me reach my best work. It must be someone who understands my goals for the piece and has similar sensibilities.

And I need time to let a manuscript cool off before I go back to it. I think what I've written is brilliant when I save the file, and I cringe reading it again two or three weeks later. Even though I know a fair bit about technique I can't see how to fix a problem until I have some distance from the first writing.
kymbrunner
May. 12th, 2008 02:25 pm (UTC)
I've had the same comments made about my work (seemed like you rushed the ending, why so fast, more internal thoughts here), but most time when people think of pacing, they think about pacing that's too slow. Trying to find that balance is what we all strive for - thanks for the reminder!
(Anonymous)
May. 13th, 2008 04:36 am (UTC)
walk the walk
"In a novel sometimes you walk, sometimes you pause, and sometimes you run through the story. Telling summarizes. It’s a storyteller’s sprint. Write with all your gears working."

Love that! Very well said. Zu
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )