December 1st, 2008

The Best Advice

It's the first week of the month and at the Tollbooth that means we're having a group discussion with every member of the Tollbooth crew chiming in.

This week each of us will pass along our favorite writing "secret".

Mine is SHOW DON"T TELL. Maybe not much of a secret. But do you really understand show don't tell?

Learning how to show information rather than blurting it out in a big information dump is so important I'd like to paste it on the front of every writers' notebook. When reading manuscripts it's also the "rule" I see writers violate again and again.

Maybe you think showing is easy. You learned how in your first creative writing class. But recently a prominent agent told me if your manuscript is still buried under slush odds are it's still suffering from an over-abundance of telling.

Balancing description, dialogue and a tiny bit of exposition is tough in a fiction manuscript.
Actions and detail must convey meaning in your story. You must display how a character sees his world and how he acts in every sentence.
Actions speak louder than words.

Your character's actions are always going to speak louder than you telling the reader what you think your character wants, thinks or does.
Number one: Frank loved candy.
That is TELLING. A nice direct sentence but dull as dirt. Duller than dirt, actually, because dirt can have lots of subtlety of mineral, color and texture. You may not be coming right out and saying Frank was an over eater and was way too fat, but this writer is TELLING the reader something about Frank that is meant to shade the reader's opinion of the character without giving a fact to back it up. It is like stating an opinion as an example of how Frank behaves.
This may not help one single person reading this blog but I’m going to say it anyway.
Lawyers call this kind of off stage observation offered to describe the truth as “hearsay”. Imagine Frank’s third grade teacher on the witness stand. She says “Frank loved candy,” describing his “typical” behavior. She's trying to make the point that because he always loved candy he must have loved candy so much on June 25 of that year that he robbed a candy store. She doesn't know about that particular incident but she's just sure she's right. NO! Don't do it. It’s not allowed in court and it’s not allowed in fiction either.

Characterizing typical behavior is boring and unspecific. And it doesn't really prove anything about what actually did happen in your story.
Do not characterize a character’s behavior. Give examples, lovely, fresh, and original samples of how a person lives. With subtlety.
We readers can draw the inference for ourselves. Readers are not idiots. If you want to write for an audience who can't make inferences don’t write for children. Children are too smart to be written down to.

So now I'll kick it up-
Example two: Frank loved candy so much that his mother couldn’t buy a bag from the grocery bag without Frank grabbing a piece in the car.
Is this telling? Yes. While there's detail in this example it is still telling. It simply adds a specific instance where his behavior is typically observed. It’s not much better than plain old telling. Don’t do this either. Please.
Why would a sentence like this ever be a good idea?
I can’t imagine.
If you write sentences like this you are fooling yourself that they are interesting, specific or engaging. They aren’t. Nope. Not even one out of three.
Instead ---
First step make a decision. Does it matter to my story that Frank likes candy? Does it really add anything to the plot or to the reader’s understanding of Frank’s state of mind, motives or behavior? Sometimes the answer is yes, often it’s no. If the answer is No leave it out. Nobody wants to read filler that doesn’t add to the story. Especially an editor or agent who has her eyes out for these mistakes. Or her eyes glazed over from reading dreck. 
Some writers brag about word count. High word count will not get you out of the slush. Trim, smart, well revised prose with very little telling will. Prune the padding.
Second step, if this detail does add to the plot or character, weave it into a scene.
Frank walked past Smith’s Sweets. His mouth watered. All that chocolate nougat and caramel, in one tiny shop. Yum.
Okay, that may be a strange image, but we get the idea. Frank loves candy. And we are really inside Frank’s head, understanding how he feels, not being told.
Or how about this--Write a tiny scene if it’s important enough. It will do lots of jobs for you, all at the same time.
Frank crept into the kitchen. The glow of the moon flooded the countertops in blue light. His footsteps patted across the linoleum. tap…tap....tap
“Mom will never know,” he whispered as he dug through the drawer.
Yes! An orange wrapper! Ahhhh, Reeses!

Okay fine. That trite paragraph will never make its way into one of my novels, but does it illustrate the concept? Showing sets up a situation where a reader can infer what the character thinks, feels, does, likes, is. We are in Frank’s skin, experiencing the moment as Frank, and one of the major reasons is that the writer showed instead of told.
Why is that example better than “Frank liked candy”? It’s interesting to read for one thing. It engages the reader, which means the reader has to infer meaning. There’s some suspense involved as the reader parses the meaning from the clues. And ultimately the reader gets a WHOLE story in a small package. It’s not just Frank liked candy. It’s Frank is devious. His mother doesn’t want him to have candy. He will get up in the middle of the night to get it. He prefers peanut butter in his chocolate (or chocolate in his peanut butter)… and he’ll do whatever is necessary to get it. That is the beginning of a tiny story. It’s a situation we can build on as the rest of the action evolves.
And now we don’t just know about Frank. We know about his mother too. She buys things he can’t have and hides them in a place that’s not all that tough to locate. What does that say about her? This story is starting to get interesting, even if you aren’t the writer's spouse, critique partner, or best friend.

All right... now you know my number one writing secret. Now 'fess up. What's your secret?
free hit counters

Tami Lewis Brown