Part of a series of articles for the new writer
Will it? Sure. Just like sitting inside a robot. You’ll be watching the world through view-screens and reading status reports from the other senses: “S/he saw… s/he smelled… s/he felt…” And how much like the character will that make you feel?
But suppose you could be a phantom presence, instead, standing right where the character is, seeing for yourself everything the character sees—as the character perceives it—knowing everything the character knows, thinks and wants, yet still able to be yourself and make your own evaluation of the situation? And suppose that’s happening in a way that gives the feeling that time is passing? Suddenly you’re not only able to be the character, you can do better, and advise the character on what to do next. True, they’re not going to listen. They never do. But that doesn’t matter, any more then it did when you shouted advice at the TV screen last week when you thought no one was listening. In fact, if you handle it well enough, as the writer, when the reader gives that advice it will be exactly what the character wants to do, giving the reader the feeling that their advice is being acted on.
Cherished belief number two: Tell the reader everything the character sees, senses, smells, touches, and hears, and the reader will become the character.
But they don’t. You can’t really become the people in the book you’re reading. You can only become a character, yourself. But isn’t that what we really want to be? You don’t want to be agent James Bond, you want his job and his life for yourself.
So what does that mean? It means you don’t tell the reader what your character sees, you tell what, of all the things they’re sensing in that instant, they will pay attention to next. Little change. Big difference.
Then, as a reader, you experience what the character does—from the character’s perspective in time and space—and do that before the character does, so you can begin making your own decision as to the importance of events and how to respond to them. The character, and his or her reaction, will be the yardstick by which you measure your own. As a participant you’re doing something that can’t happen when you’re in that robot’s control room: You begin to create alternate, and possible solutions to the problems being posed, just as you do in your own life. Now and then you may even stop, close your eyes and daydream how the scene would go if you were living it and in control of the situation. If you can make a reader do that they’re participants, not readers. And if you do it just right they won’t have time to stop and daydream because they’re too busy experiencing the story.
One final cherished belief to demolish today: There is no tooth fairy. Sorry.
So now on to grading your homework assignment.
A while ago I asked you to look through your own writing and see that every single action was motivated by some stimulis. For those of you whose dog ate the homework. I’ll give you a minute to recheck.
Here’s why it matters. Would you buy a story that said:
A Tanager winged just above John’s head, quick and bright. Yapping and the sound of small paws hurrying in his direction pulled his eyes left. An eddy in the wind brought a trace of woodsmoke, and with it memories of softer times.
It’s a series of physical world happenings unreferenced to any human reaction other than to look, and then pay no attention. It’s motivation with no reaction. It’s reporting. Lots of people trying to be writers do exactly that.
So let’s turn that around and show reaction with no motivation. Does it work any better?
Spring at last, his heart said, as he turned his steps toward the park. Maybe the last spring. Maybe one too many. A small dog, Yorkie, he guessed, was dancing in welcome, saying “Play with me,” with his shrill little barks. Painfully he bent to pet the small head. Would that I could, small friend. Straightening from the dog he closed his eyes and breathed deeply of yesterday, when the little park knew him so much better. A time when she was there to take his hand.
This, by the way, is also typical of what we see from the new writer. So what’s wrong? We don’t know why he thinks it’s spring. The dog comes toward him but as far as we know he didn’t see or hear it before it’s reported in motion at his feet. And he thinks of days past, but why? Because of the dog? A flower? The season? No, he just does it because it’s pretty, and poetic. A reader would understand, but not be drawn in because they participated not at all.
Of course you’ve guessed where I’m going with this, because in your life everything you do or think has its basis in some motivating event. You sense, and in response you react on a gut level. You then internalize the event, you think about it, and finally you take action. It may take an instant, or it could take an hour to complete.
That next motivating act might be the result of your last reaction—a response to your heaving a brick into the wet cement, perhaps. It might be pang of hunger that pulls you away from what you’re doing. It can be anything, but in unbroken chain, cause and effect march through your life, as it must through the lives of every character in your story. And that’s the true difference between show and tell.
A Tanager winged just above John’s head, quick and bright. Spring at last, his heart said, as he turned his steps toward the park. Maybe the last spring. Maybe one too many.
Yapping and the sound of small paws hurrying in his direction pulled his eyes left. A small dog, Yorkie, he guessed, was dancing in welcome, saying “Play with me,” with his shrill little barks. Painfully he bent to pet the small head. Would that I could, small friend.
An eddy in the wind brought a trace of woodsmoke, and with it memories of softer times. Straightening from the dog he closed his eyes and breathed deeply of yesterday, when the little park knew him so much better. A time when she was there to take his hand.
In completion there is beauty
These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.