Tag Archives: show don’t tell

#amwriting: consider the scenery

 The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons


The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons

I had an intriguing email conversation with a new acquaintance, a young man I met through PNWA at the recent conference. He was struggling in his writing group, trying to get a handle on  the showing vs. telling aspect of writing. As he writes mysteries, the setting and environment of certain scenes are quite important.

I suggested he view the scene through his protagonist’s eyes.

Every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary to the story.  In creative writing, this concept is referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun,” as it is a principal formally attributed to the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. He said this with regard to the settings for his plays, but in terms of writing, what this means is that if your characters notice a gun on the wall, someone must fire that gun, or it should be removed from the scene.

It was a neighborhood Dionte was unfamiliar with.  Just as he entered Tyrone’s gate, his phone dinged, a text from Ty. He’d had to leave for a minute, but Dionte should go on in and wait in the kitchen. Both men were on the board of the Community Action Council, but he didn’t know Tyrone well, and wondered where he’d been called off to.

What does Dionte see, and how does it register in his awareness?

He went up the walk, climbing the worn steps of the front porch. Feeling odd at entering the home of a casual acquaintance when he wasn’t there, Dionte reached for the knob and turned it. The door swung open, and entering the small sitting room, he was overwhelmed by the amount of clutter.

Tyrone had no TV that Dionte could see, but most of the furniture in the room was buried under stacks of newspapers and piles of laundry. His computer was partially hidden behind a stack of library books and a coffee cup, half full, sat atop them. A plate with a slice of toast sat beside the keyboard as if Ty had left in the middle of his breakfast.

Feeling claustrophobic, Dionte found the path to the kitchen, unsure now what sort of mess awaited him in there. To his surprise, the kitchen was immaculate.

The incongruity of the pristine kitchen contrasting with the clutter of Tyrone’s living room is all noted mentally. Each thing on our character’s path into and through Ty’s home is an image that registers in Dionte’s consciousness briefly, but is not mentioned again.

Tyrone had said there might be a serious problem, but wanted Dionte’s take on it before he brought it up at a meeting. Wondering what it could be, Dionte sat at the table, looking at the clock on the stove, seeing it was 11:15. He’d gotten the text only a few minutes before. Tyrone had to have been called to somewhere close by, as he’d left his house unlocked. He hadn’t passed Dionte in the front, so he must have left through the back.

The sound of someone coming up the back steps caught his attention, and his eyes were drawn to the screen door.

It’s a murder mystery, so who was approaching? What happened next? And why is the toast by the computer important?

Scenes require a certain amount of description. Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. This scene could be set several ways, and here are two, one less wordy than the other.

Snow fell softly. Holding a bag of groceries, he gazed at the stairs leading from the walk to the front door, fearing a layer of ice lurked beneath the pristine whiteness.

OR

He gazed at the icy stairs leading from the un-shoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Either way works, but personally, I would go with the second.

Pawn_of_Prophecy_coverIn 1982 I picked up Pawn of Prophecy by the late David Eddings. This was an amazing, eye-opening book for me, both as a reader and an author.  Eddings had the ability to convey a sense of place in a few well-chosen words. He put those words into  beautiful, poetic prose. The book opens in the kitchen of a farmhouse with Garion’s memories of playing under the table in a kitchen as a small child.

Garion’s earliest memories are of being a toddler: the sound of knives deftly dicing vegetables, his aunt keeping him corralled and happy under the table while she works, the sparkle of the gleaming pots and kettles high on the wall lulling him to nap.

“And sometimes in the late afternoon when he grew tired, he would lie in a corner and stare into one of the flickering fires that gleamed and reflected back from the hundred polished pots and knives and long-handled spoons that hung from pegs along the whitewashed walls and, all bemused, he would drift off to sleep in perfect peace and harmony with all the world around him.”

Later, when Garion has been completely uprooted, this passage becomes important, as it describes the place he thinks of as home. In that paragraph, we see the important things in the room, and we have a visual image of it. The child’s sense of contentment and safety that the kitchen represented is conveyed by the impressions of the kitchen instead of the image of it. The detail supports the story rather than impeding it.

The scenery in the narrative must be organic. It has to be purposeful and not just there to fill the space. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions. We see it only when it needs to be there. Sometimes we see it through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist set in the scene as described by a narrator, but everything we see must be a part of the characters’ experience.

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Conveying the Mood

Something I’ve lately realized is that every author, even my favorite, has what I think of as ‘fall-back’ tricks they use when describing certain scenes, little quirks and twists of words that are as personal and unique as a signature. The great authors can get away with this, because their stories are just so darned compelling that we don’t notice or don’t care.

I’ve had to face it–when I, as an author, make a habit of resorting to writing my characters with excessive shrugging or sighing, it’s clear I’ve run out of ideas. I recently had a wonderful discussion with several other authors who have noticed this phenomenon in their own work. After that discussion, I found myself wondering how to maintain speed in my writing when I am in the zone, but still have a variety of words and ideas available to me for describing mood and emotion.

So–since tattoos are expensive, and my palm isn’t really large enough to contain a really good table of visual cues, I resorted to my handy-dandy Excel program, and created one there.

What I discovered while compiling this, is that my little brain is quite limited. I had to struggle to picture what these moods and emotions looked like.  Once I had the facial expression in my mind, it was easier to imagine how a character might appear to an observer.

What these cues do is help me come up with a fresh description when I want to show something that may happen frequently within a group of characters. I don’t necessarily use these cues verbatim as they are written here, but they do give my mind a jumping off point and I can extrapolate from there.

Please feel free to: right click> save as> png or jpeg and print it out for your own use.

Conveying Mood and Emotion in Writing

 

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Yes, but how do you really feel?

x - y chromosomesI love writing and I love my characters, but they are so stubborn about some things. Of course, many of them have ‘Y’ chromosomes, but still…. It’s frustrating because they don’t want to to talk about how they’re feeling.

Oh, for the love of Tolstoy–don’t they get it? I’m  a woman. I need you people to talk to me. Tell me what’s going on in your imaginary head.

It’s difficult to show the characters’ emotions and thought processes when it’s so much easier to just say he felt, or she was some emotion.  These thoughts and feelings are central to making our characters feel real. But describing them from a distance, as an author must do, may disconnect the reader from that character.

Sometimes, descriptions don’t allow the reader to experience the moment with the character. Instead, the author is telling them how the character feels.What we must ensure is that our readers remain immersed in the narrative, that no ‘speed-bumps’ come along to knock them out of it. Heart Search cover

One of the best at this is Carlie M.A. Cullen, whose urban fantasy series Heart Search  featuring a coven of vampires is gaining in popularity. I think her books are so compelling because of her ability to draw a reader into the character without going over the top. So, how does she do it?

The opening line of chapter one of Heart Search Book 1, Lost reads like this: The sun, a ferocious golden orb, burnt into his skin as Joshua wandered aimlessly through the country park.

She could have just written The sun was hot and Joshua was killing time in a park.

But she didn’t, and the story is better for it–AND she showed you both the scene and Joshua’s mood in that one sentence.

So what can we learn from reading our favorite authors? We can see how they craft their tales, and we can learn those skills. Painters do this all the time, and we paint with words. 480px-Schmalz_galahad

Let’s pretend we’re writing a fantasy novel. We can go over the top, like a painting by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, or we can find a happy medium between too much and too little. There is no need to sink into overly sentimental and exaggerated pathos in order to inject feeling into our work.

Here we have a character who is on the run from a creature of some sort. 1. He was afraid. He was terrified to look back.

Example one tells the reader how the character feels. We might write this in our first draft when we are just trying to get the story out of our heads. An unskilled writer would consider it just fine the way it is, as it expresses his thoughts perfectly.

However, it tells the reader how to feel, and readers really don’t like being told what to do.

2. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a trembling hand, fear from his narrow escape coursing through his veins. Heart pounding, he leaned against the wall, listening for any sounds that shouldn’t be there before chancing a glance around the corner.

Personally, I would read book number two over book number one, because it’s more interesting and makes me want to know more about this character and his problems. We need to use physical symptoms a character might experience combined with their actions, but  we need to describe them in such a way that it is a natural part of the scene.

John slid down the wall, sitting in the mud, his breaths coming in hard, ragged gasps. Something trickled down his cheek, and wiping it, his hand came away with blood.

Another example: Theodor_Hosemann_Weinstube_1858

Lord Deccan’s fist hit the table. “Wine now, you miserable worm–or I’ll cut off your other ear!”

The one-eared innkeeper scuttled to the cellar. He quickly searched the shelves filled with dusty jars of cheap wine, settling at last on a vintage he thought might suffice.

Baldric’s guests normally drank from wooden tankards, but he knew that wouldn’t suit. There was a goblet, one he’d come by in a peculiar way, but it was a fine cup and would do well enough to stave off a tantrum of the lordly variety.

His shoulders hunched in anticipation of trouble, he approached the angry lord’s table. Setting the only goblet before the nobleman, he left the bottle and stepped away, bowing with feigned obeisance. Baldric had  survived  the  war with all but his left ear intact, and intended to remain that way.

Sir Paul McCartney, image from Rolling Stone MagazineWhat we are doing here is exactly like interpreting what our loved one is telling us, when he/she refuses to use their words. Seeing them sitting slouched in the chair, clicker in hand and numbly flipping through channels is a good indication of their mood. So we must picture the scene and describe it .

We must show the emotions as they are reflected by the physical cues our characters give us, but don’t tell them–a difficult trick to master but one we must all do if we want our work to engage the reader.

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