Tag Archive | show and tell

Story Telling — or Just Telling

What do all these opening lines have in common?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

They’re all telling more than showing the reader anything. They also happen to intrigue the reader, show off the author’s voice, and be really compelling openings to strong books. So why does telling–the narrative voice–have such a bad rap?

Show and TellI think because it’s usually badly done.

These telling lines I’ve listed are all strong writing. The prose is clean. The authors clearly have something to say. I think a big reason why more writers are not told to “tell, don’t show” is because this would be viewed by many as an excuse for bad writing.

Strong narrative takes a lot of work. It takes revisions and edits and also it takes a strong voice–if you don’t have anything to say then telling can quickly become the written blah, blah, blah.

The second reason why I think the advice is usually “show, don’t tell” is that a lot of writers apply too much telling to emotional scenes. This is where the reader generally wants the writer to get out of the way–the reader wants to be with the characters. So in strong scenes, too much telling is like standing in front of the TV screen when the big love scene or action scene is taking place–you’re getting in the way.

I keep telling folks the advice should be “show more in your scenes and tell better in set ups and transitions” but that’s pretty wordy. But the world would have a lot more good books if folks listened to that advice.

NOTE: Show and Tell my book on stronger showing and better telling is available on Amazon.com.

 

The Art of Narrative

showandtellI’m about to do my Show & Tell Workshop online for OCC this May, and I always put in a pitch not just to show more, but to tell better.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It doesn’t seem to be taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

Look at this passage from Delta of Venus by Anais Nin:

They fell on this, the three bodies in accord, moving against each other to feel breast against breast and belly against belly. They ceased to be three bodies. They became all mouths and fingers and tongues and senses. Their mouths sought another mouth, a nipple, a clitoris. They lay entangled, moving very slowly. They kissed until the kissing became a torture and the body grew restless. Their hands always found yielding flesh, an opening. The fur they lay on gave off an animal odor, which mingled with the odors of sex…

That’s beautiful, evocative writing–and it’s all narrative telling. But it works!

Or from the Dubliners by James Joyce:

Then late one night as he was undressing for bed she had tapped at his door, timidly. She wanted to relight her candle at his for hers had been blown out by gust. It was her bath night. She wore a loose open combing-jacket of printed flannel. Her white instep shone in the opening of her furry slippers and the blood glowed warmly behind her perfumed skin. From her hands and wrists too as she lit and steadied her candle a faint perfume arose.

Now, I’m not saying you have to strive for great art–although that’s not a bad goal. But narrative can be some of the most beautiful writing you’ll ever do. The trick here is when do you use narrative, and do you make it wonderful? Or do you slap down descriptions to hurry forward in the story, terrified that your pace is flagging?

I read too many manuscripts these days from young writers (and I mean by writing age, not their real age) which seem rushed. They  hurry into scenes without setting up the world and the time and the true pace of the story.

Showing can be a great too–but so can  narrative. Don’t neglect this invaluable tool! And to learn more about how to do this, check out the workshop. We’ll be doing a lot of hands-on work.

Showing More, or Lessons from Your Favorite Actors

The old adage given to most young (and I mean young in writing years, not in age) is: “show don’t tell.” Good advice, and while there’s a place for story telling in any story, showing is important enough to get top billing. You can see this in action in any decent film with good actors at work.

Actors have to show more–telling in a movie gets you boring exposition or, even worse, the deadly monologue from the bad guy as he explains evSilent Film Becky Sharperything. When you’re working in a visual media, telling ends up being talking heads. So movies have to show more–and actors have to put their characters into action. But novelists get to cheat.

In a novel or short story, the writer can just put down the words: “He was angrier than he’d ever been in his life.” Not great prose, but the reader gets the idea. Give that to any actor, and you’d end up with an actor struggling how to show that on the screen. So that’s one way a novelist can switch over from telling too much to showing more–imagine your favorite actor in the role.

What would an actor do to show this character’s anger on the screen? Would his jaw tense, his fists bunch? Would he hit something? Or would he smile, pull out a gun and shoot someone. Would he turn away, and turn back with a punch? Or would he offer up a cutting remark? It’s those little bits of business that an actor uses to better show their character in action–to put the characterization on screen. And it’s just those bits of business that a novelist needs to create to make a character come to life on the page.

Years ago, I took some improve classes. They were fun, and I was going out with an actor–and it was a great way to meet other cute guys, too. It was also great to get my head wrapped around thinking like a character, instead of myself. I had to start thinking about “how do I get this emotion across” or “how do I show this better?”  And that’s a great exercise for a writer, too–to act out your scenes.

Silent Film Star Theda BaraAnd this is where I study my favorite actors, too. How is he underplaying this scene–getting everything across with just a twitch, or a tilt of the head, or a slump of the shoulders? How is she making me see and feel the sorrow her character is dealing with–and not just with tears? I look for the honest performances–the ones that seem effortless, but which have had all the hard word done before the actors show up in front of the camera. I look for the actors who may know how to overplay a scene for farce, but who also know how to pull back and let their characters listen and react in ways that help me start to understand their characters.

All of this has gone into the Show and Tell workshop I teach–and which I’m giving for OCC RWA chapter this September (starting Sept 11). And it does seem to be the show part that most folks are working on, and which gives them the most trouble.

But narrative is a part of any story or novel–the narrative is often the stitching that holds all those great “showing” scenes together (which is why the workshop is called Show AND Tell).

Regency Actor GarrickHowever, next time you’re watching a favorite TV show or movie, or at the next play you go to, start to watch like a writer (or another actor, or the director). Look for those little bits of business that put a twist on the dialogue, or which reveal a ton about what the character is thinking or feeling. Would you have done something differently in that scene? Chosen to play it another way? Study the pros–and then write a scene that would earn the undying love of your favorite actor if you were to give them such a juicy, emotional scene with so much character hidden in the actions that show us the real person.

Workshops – Teaching and Taking

I’ve been teaching online workshops now for a few years, and I’ve one coming up for the Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop course with the Lowcountry Romance Writers, and every one of these is a different beast from the others. There are advantages to online workshops, the best being that you don’t have to drive, and with winter still hanging around, that’s a huge plus. But the other big plus is that, for writing, it’s all about the writing and getting the words down and communicating. That’s a challenge with just text, and so it’s why I’m always adjusting these workshops, and adding new things I’ve learned from my own writing.

Up, up and awayThere are times I feel a lot like a balloon — filled with hot air and not much else, something worth a glance. But the view is always better from up in the balloon. And while maybe I’ve covered the same material before, it only takes one questions that puts everything into a new light and makes it all fresh again.

I’m also a believer in covering the basics over and over again — you do the same thing in dance, you drill. It’s the repetition that actually leads to strong technical skills. That’s true for writing too — you really cannot cover the basics enough.

But all this leads me to think about what someone should expect from an online workshop — what is it possible to get and what is it possible to give. And since I’ve taken a few courses I have opinions about both sides of workshops.

The first job of any teacher is to engage. This means workshops shouldn’t bore. This one can be tricky online because you’re trying to balance conveying a lot of great information with trying not to overload the workshop participants — and everyone has different levels of processing. “The mind can’t absorb what the butt can’t endure” — in a classroom, you can only keeps folks sitting for so long unless you are utterly fascinating. Online that changes. Some folks read faster and some don’t; some folks retain more from what they read, some don’t. So there has to be a fair bit of repeating, balanced with the new information.

And sometimes it just takes saying the same thing several times to make it click. Short sentences help. A lot.

The second job is to inform — and my own criteria is if I get one gem, one golden nugget out of any workshop, it’s worth the price of admission. (And, yes, I’ve had a few workshops where that was missing, but almost every workshop will give you one good bit of advice — everything after that is gravy.)

With the entertaining, and the information snuck in, that covers the basic for any workshop for me. But I do think the best workshops have one more vital element — they’re fully interactive. Teaching has to be a dialogue.

I’ve lurked in workshops and I’ve participated — I always get more from the ones where I dive in and try out new things. I have more fun if I get my hands dirty. And workshops should be a place to fool around and try new things.

I also like teaching workshops more when those taking the workshop are willing to play — give and take is always more fun that either just giving, or just taking.

Which, actually, leads us back to the “show and tell” workshop — fancy that — because stories that both show and tell are also more fun that stories that just show or just tell. It’s all about balance really — in a workshop, or a story. A balance of information and engagement. A balance of give and take. A balance between showing folks how it’s done and telling. And that’s the thing about balance — it’s something that must be maintained. And I think that’s what I’m always looking for in a workshop — a well balanced flow of information.

But what’s your criteria for a great workshop?