Monday, 1 October 2012

Show not tell

Good writing has an effortless flow. The reader subconsciously responds to its mood and style. Once the ideas start to come, the key is to translate these into words that take the reader along. But in any good novel or short story a reader must be sufficiently immersed in the scene, character and plot to forget that they reading. They must be there as a witness not a distant bystander.

The techniques to achieve this are too wide for a blog post and if I had mastered them I would be off to another book signing rather than writing this. But there are a few prompts and self-reminders which I’ve found helpful when hacking my way through the chapters and a few of them are here for the Phoenix October Post:

‘Show not tell’ is an essential component to avoid being a ‘gumboot’ writer. Avoid going out in the mud with your size tens and ‘telling.’ Show it – the reader wants to see. They need something to do and will lose their appetite if you constantly spoon-feed them.

Imagine that you are sitting watching your chapter/scene on a cinema screen. Is it clear in the readers mind? Apart from the dialogue, films can’t tell you anything, it’s all visual and therefore shown. Look at your hero by the window in the corner. You’ve just told us he’s afraid. On the screen he’s trying to light a cigarette with his shaking hands and keeps glancing out of the window. Write down those clues in facial expressions and actions that show the emotion instead of telling it. The reader will engage and get closer.

The dialogue and action is crucial to a scene on screen, just as it is for the writer. If three people are standing like stuffed dummies in a room, however good the dialogue is, dummies are exactly what you see on screen, and exactly what the reader will see unless you animate the scene by showing.  A brushstroke of description and then action as you go along is enough to set the scene off against the characters. Sit in your Pullman seat (the one with the big square arms and crisp edges) and listen to the dialogue; look at what your characters are doing. If neither cuts it on screen, then they won’t cut it for your reader.

The film you are watching is often full of panorama and detail. The writer needs to temper this so that the reader does not get overload and indigestion. Succinct ‘show’ and a steal on mood can be helpful. Music does this in the cinema; the writer has the more powerful tool of words.

John LeCarré invokes mood in Smiley’s People and gives the reader enough description for us to fill in the gaps. 

“The gates opened electronically and beyond them lay mounds of clipped grass like mass graves grown over.  Olive downs stretched towards the sunset. A mushroom-shaped cloud would have looked entirely natural.”

Here the devil is in the detail and not overdoing it.

Describing your characters you see on screen can be tricky because it’s easy to slip into cardboard cut-out clichés. ‘He was a tall dark man’; ’she had long fair hair.’ The character actions and dialogue will help create a picture beyond the basic visual, but the writer can give more by approaching it from a deeper subtler ‘show’ angle that the film cannot portray. In The Shining Stephen King describes the hotel manager:

“Ulman stood five feet five, and when he moved it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all plump men. The part of his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problem to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly. This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel. Perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.”

There is a mix in the extract above that takes the writing to another dimension and draws the reader closer to Ulmann as he works. 

These are only my thoughts. You are telling a story, so don't be afraid of telling part of it. Rules are there to be broken, but making the majority of the writing vivid and powerful by showing will keep your reader with you.

 Keep writing.

Keith Morley