Friday, March 17, 2017

I Can Show You the World

I still don't have characters or a plot outline. My parsnips remain unbuttered.

The thing about writing fiction that you always hear is "show, don't tell." In other words, let the scene play out, don’t just summarize it. You want the reader to feel in the middle of the action, every sight, sound, and smell.

What about me? Do I follow that advice? I thought "yes" but let's actually have a look for ourselves, and see if I'm feeling a bit too highly of myself. I always thought I was great at showing, since basically everything is in scenes. But, looking back over some past stories, maybe I'm not as great as I thought.

Here, look:
Forty-seven days previous, a tremor had shaken the East End, collapsing more buildings and opening a rift in the pavement. A room, sealed thousands of years before, lay beneath one ruined building, and was unsealed when the earth was rent asunder. Inside was a device of riveted brass, fitted with coiled wires and crystals. (A Matter of Time, 2010)
This is telling. It's a summary of events. It doesn't play out like a scene, and it doesn’t pull you in. In this case, it’s a bit of background information, and it doesn't need to be shown.
The ruins of She’ol appeared distantly in the darkness, dimly lit by some unseen source. As they approached, the buildings took form, such as they were. The entire town was crumbling, and many buildings looked as though they’d been bombed.

The riders slowed as they entered the town, which was not as unpopulated as it first appeared. Figures roamed the streets, in various degrees of transparency. They each carried a candle, which illuminated the buildings as they passed by. Those more transparent had shorter candles. Some were on the verge of going out. (To Hell and Back, 2013)
This is on the telling end of showing. It's part of a scene, but it doesn’t pull you in with all those juicy senses. It was adapted from a script I wrote and it retains that outside perspective, where we don't wander into anyone's head.
“Rough night?”

“You have no idea.”

The cashier bagged everything into the backpack, and happened to glance at the TV running almost silently beside him as he took Daniel’s money.

And the TV news was helpfully displaying Daniel’s picture with the caption “Armed and Dangerous.”

The cashier blinked at the TV, and turned back to Daniel, who stood frozen. “Is there a reward?”

“What? I don’t know,” Daniel replied, startled.

The cashier looked back at the TV. “Doesn’t say there’s a reward.” He shrugged, handed Daniel his change, and said, “Have a good night.” (A Conspiracy of Ravens, 2015)
This is how most of my stories are written. Dialogue heavy, script-like. Technically it's showing, but it doesn't have the visceral effect that showing should have, it doesn't pull you into the gooey center of the scene. You want senses? I'll give you senses:
The plant loomed up in the dark. With its filthy exterior and cracked windows, it looked like the sort of place Upton Sinclair would have a few words to say about. See, I’m cultured. And of course, once we got closer, there was the smell. It was so strong that Matt could smell it with his weak human nose. It was the smell of rancid meat and old blood that had seeped into cracks so deep that it would never be scrubbed out. It was probably curdled.1

The door was unlocked. Or rather, it was locked, but the lock had been violently broken. So now it was unlocked. The smell was so much worse inside. Matt made a retching sound the second we opened the door.

“Shh,” I said calmly.

“Oh, sorry if I ruined our sneak attack. I’m just over here getting salmonella from the air.” (Cold Blooded, 2016)
This one's in first person, so you're in someone's head by default. So that should come with more feelings. Gross ones, apparently. And while it's part of a scene, it still ends up more on the telling end. I'll try to explain how that works.

Now, I write a lot of dialogue, so most of the story is in-scene. It's not just "They talked about murder." It's an actual conversation about murder (because what else would my characters talk about). So technically that's showing. But then, the action… it’s all about verbs. If you describe how your character sensed something, like, "Janet smelled onions," then you're telling. If you describe the thing your character sensed, like, "The scent of sweet onions hung in the air," now you’re showing.

It's something I'm still working on, as with most things. That's the great thing about not being a published author. You can still make mistakes and no one will know until you loudly declare it on your blog. I have all the time in the world to get better. I think the only one getting impatient about my slow progress is me.

So I should probably get back to it. I'll see you Tuesday.

1 This was a call back to a point where he was pondering the origin of "bloodcurdling."

No comments:

Post a Comment