Don’t Tell, Show Me

show-and-tellExample #1

He was angry. She could see it. It frightened her.

***

Example #2
His eyes flashed . His dark brows gathered and he seized her by the arm, jerking her from her feet. With a cry she fell. He loomed over her, his jaw clenched so tightly that his lips turned white under the pressure. His long fingers dug into her arm so hard she felt the bones bend under the pressure. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her mouth suddenly dry, her lips parted but no sound save a tiny squeak came out. Like a mouse, she squeaked. She cast about wildly as she struggled against him, looking for some safe place to hide.

There was none.

She wrenched herself free from his grasp and cowered in the corner. She gasped for breath and swallowed the scream that burbled up from deep inside her. With a slow, measured tread, he closed on her.

***

So what is the difference between the two? One is telling. The other is showing.

The purpose of writing fiction is two-fold. You write to tell a story and you write to evoke emotion in your reader. People read fiction for myriad reasons. Some read to escape. Some read to be entertained. Some read to experience vicariously something outside their norm. The stories that stand the test of time manipulate the reader’s emotions and provide some sort of catharsis in the end.

The ancient Greeks coined the term to describe the emotional release found at the resolution of a story. They believed it provided an emotional purification. Well-told stories, whether in a written or visual form, should provide some sort of fist pump reaction when the main character gets their reward or faces their tragedy at the end. There should be an emotional payoff for taking the journey with the character.

To reach this emotional payoff, the writer must engage the reader in the action of the story in such a way that the reader’s heart beats faster when the main character’s does. The reader laughs when the main character does. In short, the reader must slough off his or her self for a while and slip into the incorporeal body of the point of view character. Before the reader can inhabit the mind and body of the point of view character, the writer must first possess the point of view character and travel the story within his or her consciousness.

From there, it’s only a matter of taking dictation.

What does the character see? Describe it in detail. What does the character smell? Describe it in detail. What does the character hear? Describe it in detail. What does the character taste? Describe it in detail. What does the character feel? Describe it in detail. In short, engage as many of the five senses as possible as filtered through the point of view character. This means including physical reactions to the outside stimuli.

Let’s put that another way. When you open a plastic food container that’s been in the back of the refrigerator for months, you may describe it this way:

I reluctantly opened the container. The smell nauseated me. It looked disgusting. I shook my head and threw it away.

Now you’re saying to yourself that I engaged the senses. What of it?

Try this on for size:

I slowly lifted the lid on the container, holding it away from my face. Unfortunately, my arms weren’t long enough to hold the smell at bay. The rancid odor hit my nose with all the force of a Mack truck. Putrid smells of decaying matter and growing mold twisted my stomach in knots. Bile rose in my throat along with that familiar pre-vomit salty taste. My mouth watered. The first spasm hit me and I gagged. I raced for the trash can, replacing the lid as I went, cutting off the fresh assault on my senses. Shaking my head, I tossed the whole container into the trash. It wasn’t worth trying to salvage that tiny scrap of plastic. It could rot for eternity in a landfill for all I cared…as long as I didn’t have to endure that biohazard any more.

***

The difference between the two is that you as the reader merely watched the first event. You as the reader experienced the second event.

You cheated! You used first person. Of course the reader experienced the event!

Okay. Change the personal pronouns from “I” and “my” to “she” and “her” and I guarantee the results will be the same. Some writers write the first draft from a first person limited omniscient point of view and change personal pronouns in subsequent drafts. The reason some choose to do this is to serve as a reminder to internalize the reactions within a scene. Only an android drifts through life without a visceral reaction to the things that happen all around on a daily basis.

***

What techniques do you use to change your telling of a story to showing it?

Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want

“It’s good to want things.” – Winona Ryder in Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael

“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.” — Ray Bradbury

A while back, I talked about Two Sentences That Changed My Life and From Frying Pan to Fire: Scene and Sequel. What both of those posts have in common is that they touched on the three vital elements of a story:  Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC). Without these, you don’t have a story.

Goal – What your character wants
Motivation – Why/How badly your character wants it
Conflict – What stands between your character and his/her goal

If any of these three elements are weak, your story will be weak as well. It doesn’t matter how beautifully you command the language, or how skillfully you wield action verbs, without a well-defined goal, sufficient motivation, or suitable level of conflict, your story will fall flat and you will lose your reader.

gwtw1Without a clearly-defined goal, your character will wander aimlessly along, smelling the flowers and wondering what he/she is supposed to be doing. You should be able to answer quickly and concisely what your Main Character (MC) wants. In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett wants Ashley Wilkes. Everything she does springs from this want, from befriending Melanie Hamilton to making her home in Atlanta, it’s all done with the intent to stay close to Ashley Wilkes so she can make him love her.

In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby wants Daisy. In The Sting, Hooker wants revenge for the murder of his friend. In The Princess Bride, Westley wants to claim Buttercup.

Let’s take a closer look at The Princess Bride. That’s a good one to start with because the characters’ goals are so clearly defined. Westley wants to claim Buttercup. Inigo wants to find the six-fingered man. Humperdink wants to start a war between Guilder and Florin. At some point, their goals come into conflict with one another through the action in the story. Westley and Inigo are pitted against each other because Inigo was hired to kidnap Buttercup and Westley is following them so he can rescue her.

This is where the motivation behind the goals leads to the level of conflict created. In the famous sword fight scene, Inigo’s heart isn’t really in it. Why not? Because Westley isn’t the six-fingered man therefore, he isn’t sufficiently motivated to kill Westley. Westley, however is strongly motivated to defeat Inigo because he stands in the way of rescuing his dearest love, Buttercup. The motivation behind meeting the primary goal is stronger than the motivation behind the secondary goal, so there is conflict. With each clash of one goal blocking another, tension builds.

The-Princess-Bride-1987_gallery_primaryThe story comes to a head when the characters’ primary goals come into conflict, when Westley, in his pursuit of Buttercup, stands in the way of Humperdink realizing his goal of using Buttercup to start a war. This occurs at the climax. Will Westley’s motivation (love) defeat Humperdink’s motivation (greed)? If Westley didn’t have deep feelings for Buttercup, would he fight so hard to rescue her? If Humperdink weren’t so greedy for power, would he be so single-minded in his purpose to use Buttercup to start a war?

This is why motivation is so important. How high are the stakes for your character? What does your character stand to lose? How will it impact his life if he fails? How far is your character willing to go to attain his goals? What will it take to make your character give up on his goals? When you can answer those questions, look at your answers and figure out how to throw each and every answer into your character’s path. That is how you build conflict.

Conflict is having your character face the very real possibility of being thwarted in achieving his goals. Conflict is blocking your character from his goal. All your character has to do to reach safety is cross a bridge. What do you do? You blow up the bridge. Now what does your character do? Well, your character has to find another way across. He learns of a ferry just upriver, but he has to fight his way through hostile natives to get there. If he doesn’t have adequate or believable motivation for continuing forward, the reader will wonder why he bothers. Why doesn’t he simply go home?

You have to communicate to your reader just how important the goal is, how motivated they are to attain that goal, and how difficult the conflict is to overcome. If any of these fall short, your story will lose tension and consequently your reader won’t care.

So, say to your character “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want…”

I Didn’t See That Coming – Foreshadowing

I was very excited to find a blog post on foreshadowing this morning. Unfortunately, it didn’t really tell me anything about foreshadowing. It told me more about the author’s latest book. That’s all well and good, but I was put off. It felt like someone was pulling the old bait and switch on me. That makes me cranky. When I get cranky, I do something about it. So this morning, I wrote my own damn post on foreshadowing. So there.

On About.com Richard Nordquist defines foreshadowing thusly: The presentation of details, characters, or incidents in a narrative in such a way that later events are prepared for (or “shadowed forth”).

In short, it’s setting the stage for future events. Foreshadowing creates a mood. It sets up the audience for the main conflict and the climax, or the catalysts that bring about the climax. It’s a device mystery writers use to plant red herrings and lead the reader to the clues that solve the case. In horror, it’s used to create mood and warn audiences not to get too attached to that character because he or she will be the next victim. In romance, it provides the niggling little doubts as to whether or not the hero and heroine will end up together.

Most readers never consciously notice it. Executed properly, it is very subtle and paves the way for the emotional impact the writer seeks to evoke. Writing fiction is all about evoking emotion. I’ll go back and say it again. The first and greatest lesson I learned was that as a writer, if you’re not evoking emotion in your reader, you may as well be writing a cookbook. But then, even the best cookbooks evoke some kind of emotion these days.

I mention foreshadowing because I’m consciously using it in HERO’S END. 29543_322708094509389_1163963974_nThere’s a bit of a mystery going on and foreshadowing is a natural tool in mysteries. Foreshadowing isn’t all dark portents either. As a writer, if I’m going to use an object to save the day, or to slay the bad guy on page 180, I need to introduce the object around page 20 or so. If a fact is going to be the catalyst for an emotional scene, I need to allude to the fact early and repeat it a few times before it actually causes the issue. If the reader hasn’t built up the same emotional response as the character, when the character explodes in a ball of angst, it seems to have come out of left field. Or if one of your characters must die in keeping with the story line, you need to prepare the reader for it. Think red shirts.

Some writers call it back-writing. Once you’ve written the main story, you go back through and sprinkle the images, references, clues and allusions throughout the story, building up to the climax or event.

In SOVRAN’S PAWN, I used Blade’s sunshades, which interfaced with his IC data reader for a head’s up display. I introduced the shades with Blade when he met Bo. I introduced the interface in the following chapter. At the climax, the shades and their interface were vital for getting him where he needed to be. Without the mention of them earlier, it would have seemed like a Deus Ex Machina intervention and a cheap device.

I read a debut novel by an author of my acquaintance in which her main character does a complete about-face of personality at the climax. Unfortunately, there was no foreshadowing of this possibility, so when it happened, her readers rebelled. Because her book was published by an imprint of a large publishing house, there’s really no excuse. This is the kind of thing good editors and beta readers normally catch.

Never underestimate the value of foreshadowing or the subtlety of a skilled hand on the pen.

From Frying Pan to Fire: Scene and Sequel

Most writers have heard the terms “scene” and “sequel.” The first time I was exposed to the concept was when I read Dwight Swain’s book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. They are such an important element in storytelling that I wanted to write a blog post about them, but every time I started, I realized that consolidating all of the important elements of scene and sequel into a short post would be nearly impossible if I were to deal with the mechanics of them in any depth. After all, Swain took an entire chapter to delve into the nuances of scene and sequel – they are that important.

At the most rudimentary level, scene can be explained as “action” and sequel can be explained as “reaction.” Both exist together to drive the action forward and control the pace at which the story unfolds. Scene is about linear events and sequel is about the emotional impact of these events and opens the door to the next scene.

Every scene should be like a microcosm of a story in itself, with your character having a goal, reaching an obstacle, and encountering change as a result. In the sequel, the character has an emotional reaction to the conflict created by having their goal blocked and either overcoming or failing, deals with it and transitions into a new mindset in order to face the next scene.

A scene has three elements:

  1. Goal
  2. Conflict
  3. Disaster

The term disaster is used to describe the new negative state of affairs that must be overcome. Swain calls it a hook that pulls the story forward. The goal in a scene is a short-term, focused goal, small in scope and immediate. The conflict is the obstacle keeping your character from attaining his goal.

One example of these elements is found in the opening scenes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Indiana Jones has reached the golden idol in the temple of the Chachapoyan Warriors. His goal? To take the idol. The obstacle? The pedestal is booby trapped. The disaster? The temple collapses around him.

Enter the sequel. Swain’s three elements of a sequel are:

  1. Reaction
  2. Dilemma
  3. Decision

Reaction: Indy’s smug confidence turns to anxiety as he realizes he’s about to become a permanent part of the site. Dilemma: He doesn’t have the time to carefully negotiate his way back through the booby-trapped floor tiles. The ceiling is falling, setting off the poisoned darts. Decision: He makes a mad dash through and prays he makes it without getting hit by a dart or falling rocks.

Of course, Indy makes it through unscathed, stops and turns, adjusts his hat with a little relieved smile and the wall behind the idol shatters as the giant boulder crashes through. New goal, new conflict, new disaster.

That is an oversimplified explanation of scene and sequel, but you get the idea. Sometimes, it is possible to have several scenes in succession before bringing in the sequel, but the sequel must come into play. The sequel not only lets the character internalize the emotional impact of the action, but it also lets the reader figure out their own emotions as well.

Evoking an emotional response is what good fiction is all about. And that in a nutshell is how scene and sequel work together towards that end.

***

Are you conscious of scene and sequel in your reading and writing? How do you keep track of scene and sequel?

Two Sentences That Changed My Life

When I was a very young and inexperienced writer, the best advice I got from published authors of my acquaintance was to pick up a copy of Dwight Swain’s book, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. Yes, this book has been around that long. Actually, this book has been around longer than I have. Before I had a chance to snag a copy from my local bookseller, I received a copy from my Great-Aunt Gladys, who was also a bit of an angel, encouraging my literary aspirations from the time I was two-years-old.

I consumed the book. I devoured it. I internalized it. I made its advice part of my subconscious. I refer to it frequently. My ancient copy is bright yellow, which makes it easy to spot on a crowded bookshelf from far across the room.

The power of two sentences changed my life as a writer.

One of the most difficult tasks for novelists is to condense their story down to less two hundred words. When someone asks you what your story is about, the temptation is to give all the backstory, the world-building and the details you painstakingly created. Nobody wants that. They want to know what the story is about.

Swain said that the heart of your story contains five elements, which can be reduced to two sentences: one a statement, the other a question.

  • Character
  • Situation
  • Objective
  • Opponent
  • Disaster

I’ve found that keeping this in mind when creating my own story summary helps immensely. When someone asks me what SOVRAN’S PAWN is about, I tell them –

When convicted traitor Bo Barron’s father is kidnapped, she has to go under cover on an interstellar cruise liner at a gambling tournament to steal plans for an illegal weapon that are being auctioned off to meet the ransom demand. An attempt on her life by a mysterious methane breather, and the timely intervention of a handsome Inner Circle agent leave Bo wondering whether there is a weapon at all and will she survive the cruise long enough to rescue her father?

That’s a seventy thousand word book condensed into eighty-two words.

  • Character – Convicted traitor Bo Barron
  • Situation – father is kidnapped
  • Objective – (There is a dual objective here) Stealing the plans, but also recovering her father
  • Opponent – Mysterious methane breather (stated) Kidnappers (implied)
  • Disaster – getting herself killed, or losing her father

You know, if I were brutal about it, I could trim it even more.

Let’s take a story you’re probably more familiar with, like STAR WARS (ANH)

When Luke Skywalker learns he’s in possession of stolen plans, he joins forces with Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi to turn them over to the Rebellion. But can he rescue the princess and keep the plans out of the hands of Darth Vader, who is determined to destroy the Jedi and recover the plans no matter the cost?

Or this movie?

During WWII, American ex-pat Rick Blaine finds himself in possession of stolen letters of transit and no easy way to rid himself of them. When the Nazi occupying force, an underground leader, and Rick’s ex-girlfriend all conspire to recover the letters, who will get the letters and who will end up dead or in a concentration camp?

See? Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.

Pick a favorite book or movie…any story really, and try it! Let me know how it works for you!

Layers Upon Layers

In my last post From Bones to Hair: Building a Story, I talked about how I build a story layer by layer, building on each draft and adding more details and “fleshing” it out.

I also enjoy drawing. I’m not very good at it, but when I was a child, I chose to devote my energy to learning how to write rather than draw. My aunt was an artist who kept me supplied in Walter Foster books, charcoals and pencils from an early age. It wasn’t until I was expecting my second child that I took a formal drawing class at the local community college to learn better technique.

By that time, I’d been a professional writer for more than ten years and had decided to take time off from writing to be a full-time mom. In that class, I found that drawing is much like building a story.

Recently, I was looking at videos on You Tube, and I came across this one. It illustrates how layering and tweaking and not being afraid to make mistakes is vital to the construct of artistic works. I’m sure if I kept looking, I’d find another video that illustrates the same layering technique for music. This time-lapse video offers a fascinating look at how to build a lifelike drawing. The results are impressive.