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Sunday, 17 April 2016

Show me, don't tell me.

I don't own this picture, but there's a whole story written in those shoes.

I was an English major in college, but I actually suck at punctuation. My editor has taught me more about the rules for punctuation than any teacher in sixteen years of education ever did.

Screenwriting taught me how to pare things down to their most visual elements, and to write action scenes with active words. There's a set up to every scene, just so we know who's there and what they're doing, but the story is told through the dialogue between characters. Time spent a character's head does NOT translate into something visible on screen.

In my books, its my job to paint the visual picture with words. I need to show readers what my characters see and do with active words that allow the reader to be there with them, and then whenever possible, let interactions with other characters give voice to the narrator's observations. For example, in an early (unedited) scene from Cheating Death:

I was coated in a thick layer of brick dust, but I’d forgotten about the blood until someone shone a flashlight into my face and screamed, “He’s hurt!”

Revelations about the world around my characters are also best done through direct interaction with their environment. And even better when they can unfold bit by bit. It allows the reader to experience the truth alongside the character:

“I’m fine,” I tried to croak, but the dust choked my voice. Another good Samaritan joined the first and tried to hand me water. I pushed it away, and I was vaguely aware of someone holding their mobile phone up as a torch.
A mobile phone.
This wasn’t 1944.

I try to describe a character to the reader fairly early in their intro, but it can be tricky, especially in a first-person narrative. Honest self-assessments can become lawn furniture (the kind that clutters a yard and gets stumbled over) unless they're blended with something appropriate to the action:

I realized I was in London, my London, where mobile phones recorded images of people who shouldn’t be here, and a bloody, dust-covered, dark-skinned young man garnered too much attention on a pre-dawn city street.

My chest heaved with barely suppressed panic as I tucked myself around a corner, out of sight of the well-meaning Londoners. What had they seen? I looked down at myself, barely visible in the still black sky of early morning. I was filthy and covered in blood, but my clothes weren’t obviously anachronistic in this age of vintage-is-cool, and outwardly, I probably still looked like the eighteen-year-old guy I physically was. I felt my chest, my torso, and my face where I’d been slammed against a wall in the blast. I was battered, but I’d heal after a day’s sleep.
My body would heal anyway.

I doubted the same could be said for anything else.

A challenge in series-writing is to remind the reader about a character's backstory without a full recap. Again, it's tricky in first-person narrative to give historical information that doesn't sound like an info-dump, so I try to tie it to an action or emotion whenever possible:


I stiffened and my fingers curled reflexively into weapons.

“Tom, it’s Ava.”

Ava. Her voice was a sound from a time when love and laughter had blended with the ever-present pain, and happiness had given it texture and light. It was a time before I knew what true pain was, a time before inky blackness had replaced happiness, and hope had fled in tears.

Ava’s voice was quiet and hesitant … and coming closer. She was in the alley with me. I felt panic rise up again like a vise that squeezed my throat until my heart threatened to pound its way out of my chest. And then I remembered who I was and what I’d done. I wasn’t her poor little cousin, Tom, with an emotionally abusive father, and a mother who hated the sight of me because I reminded her of him and what he had done to her. I wasn’t anything weak or frail or good or right. There was nothing to care about and everything to fear in me. My heart was a dead thing that merely pumped blood through my veins. In fact, I thought dispassionately, I could kill my cousin now and then disappear as if I’d never been here at all. 

More backstory reminders are wrapped around dialogue with another character, with more character reveal about Tom's state of mind:

She stopped moving. Maybe she heard my thoughts. I took a step forward. “Ava?” My voice was definitely not my own, and I decided to use the croaking to sound helpless. “Is that really you?”

I sensed her hesitation in the dark. I looked for her, but couldn’t see her outline – she was still too far away. I took another step forward.

“Adam was in the tunnels when the bomb exploded. I can’t See him.” There was a soft desperation in Ava’s voice and I froze in place. “I can’t See anyone underground – not Archer, not Tam, not … my twin.”

Her twin. My cousin and best friend, Adam. I couldn't let him see me. He would know in an instant who I was - what I'd become, and he would hate me too. I should wrap my hands around Ava's throat and squeeze until she broke, and then I should find a spiral and just ... go.

I try to eliminate as many passive verbs (ending in "ing") as I can. I'd rather have short, simple, active sentences - they keep the tension higher. For example, "I sensed her hesitation in the dark. I looked for her, but couldn't see her outline..." If I'd written, "Sensing her hesitation in the dark, I looked for her..." Tom would sound too self-aware, and not in the moment.

Another word I've tried to eliminate almost completely is "Suddenly." It's one of those words I tell people to search, and then remove 90%. "Very" is another one, and adjectives ending in "ly" should only be used as truly necessary. If a word can be made active, or removed entirely without changing the meaning of the sentence, do it. It propels the reader along with the action, and makes the scene feel immediate, rather than something that's been reflected upon by the narrator.

I'm certainly not a writing expert by any stretch of the imagination. I am, however, an inhaler of books. When I delve into a world that an author has created, I want to be drawn into the action and carried alongside the characters as their story unfolds. I want to be shown the world, the people who inhabit it, and the experiences they're having. Only then am I invested enough to feel the emotions the author intends the characters to feel. 

Tell me what happens and I'll listen, but show me what happens and I'll experience.