Can You Show Me How?

horseIf you love to write and have taken a creative writing class, (I sure hope you’ve taken a writing class or three) you’ve heard the adage that a writer must show, not tell, a story. If you don’t know exactly what it means, you’re not alone. Confusion reigns on this topic because what seems obvious is difficult to describe without citing your second grade short story efforts and flapping your arms like an ostrich straining for flight. None of us wrote well in second grade so our loopy efforts are always good for embarrassing examples. As for the ostrich – great feathers, never gonna fly.

Your writing teacher probably threw the maxim at you until it became a paper sword, “You’ll know it when you see it.” It meant reading the best literature written in English: Twain, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, D. H. Lawrence, Austen, Stegner, and their ilk. Blessed with professors intent on introducing you to excellent writers, you learned to read, even to riding shotgun for younger readers and writers. You know good writing now, but you still might not know how to do it, because that requires two specific tasks: practicing the art of writing, and seeing examples of what doesn’t work in order to contrast it with what does.

Many people think dialogue is the yellow brick road to avoiding telling pitfalls, but it’s not only not a guarantee, as dialogue has its own arena of skill to master, it fails to cite other strategies to successful showing. I’m going to identify four other writing markers to help you understand how telling differs from showing. You’ll forgive me, please, for not being Hemingway, but I charge less. The examples are my own, and while less worthy of literary attention than Ernest, they’ll suffice for this purpose. The tell passage comes first; the second follows with its swagger of BMOC – yep, all show, that one.

Details reveal you know exactly what you’re writing about because no one wants their accountant to fix the car.

T: I was a rebellious kid at home. (Yeah, whadija do, kid?)

S: Walking the long route through woods garbed in brittle gold, I grabbed a whirligig seed dropped from a maple tree and stuck it to my nose, my new proboscis declaring my alien status, and strode into the house two hours late, defiant of mom’s rule to get straight home from school. (Hoo-whee, you’re in big trouble now, kid.)

Emotions make your reader sympathetic to your character’s plight, so make your reader cry, laugh, scream, fight for justice for the protagonist – or demand the death penalty for the evil anti-hero.

T: Kate’s husband made her so mad. (Um, hubbies are like that.)

S: Kate trudged into the house to see Tom slouched in his recliner, an open beer can on the table, an empty strewn on the floor, ripping the fringes off her favorite leather jacket and lobbing them into the fireplace. (I’d be out the door to hire a divorce lawyer before my spit could hit the floor if my hubby did that.)

Great writing exposes the whole of the universe in minute detail.

(I’m going to break my formula here and quote a published sentence for the S. You’ll see why when you read it below.)

T: When she died, Daniel was heartbroken. (Doesn’t make me feel Daniel’s pain because it doesn’t remind me of my own.)

S: “When she was dead not a week later…Daniel learned that the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us.” From The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer, Henry Holt and Company, 2010. (The sentence melted me and compelled me to read late into the night. I wasn’t disappointed at the loss of sleep, as Winer’s story is consistently excellent.)

Write revealing information about your character so the reader really gets to know the stranger in her house.

T: Phil was extremely tall and wore his dark brown hair in a perfect cut. (So he’s good looking, but what kind of man is he?)

S: Phil leaned against the fence railing, elbows poking behind like lazy flags, and watched till the horse wore herself out, then sauntered over and stood near without looking her in the eye. She flicked her mane and pawed the dirt as if trying out new ballet shoes. He paced the edge of the fence, letting the mare follow at her own speed. She nuzzled his shoulder but he ignored her. He ambled along the fence line, barely scuffing up a dust trail, and finally dropped his hand backward, palm open. She nibbled his fingers as if tasting the salt, and whickered softly, an equine invitation to make friends. (Have no clue what Phil looks like, but I’d like to meet a man who can calm a skittish horse without hurting her.)

Telling sometimes works better – yeah, it might.

T: Jenny had made pancakes with her mom. (Make ‘em once, you know the drill, and please don’t use clumsy pluperfect tense.)

S: Jenny ransacked three shelves of canned pinto beans, tuna fish, strawberry jelly jars, Ritz cracker boxes, and bags of dried noodles stashed in the cupboard but didn’t find the flour till she searched the back of the fridge and spotted a half empty white paper bag rolled up against the side of last night’s hamburger casserole. Dragging it out meant shifting the open can of condensed milk that Gramps poured into his coffee every morning. She splattered a hefty dollop of it all over the shelf and grabbed the rag from the sink to mop up the mess. The flour still huddled at the back of the fridge. She shoved two wrinkled apples out of the way and yanked a carton of sour milk laid on its side because at least a dozen wine bottles filled the tall shelves. (The kitchen’s such a mess, how’s she going to make anything to eat in there that won’t give ‘em all ptomaine poisoning?)

What’s wrong with the second paragraph? Nothing, except the lengthy description of trying to get the bag of flour to make pancakes, and I haven’t yet written about locating an empty bowl, scrubbing dried egg off the mixing spoon, or greasing the griddle. Making breakfast, however, is only the springboard to Jenny talking with Mom about the fact that the 15-year-old is pregnant. It would work if I wanted to show the anxious teen delaying the awful conversation as long as possible. This is where a writer must make a decision: bore the reader with infinite description of a mundane activity, or get to the damn point already and sink your writing chops into an event important to the story. (This time, choose tell but write it in simple past tense: Jenny made pancakes with her mom. Now get on with the rest.)

Telling provides information while showing makes the reader feel and relate. One is as useful as an almanac, the other as exciting as leaping over waterfalls. An almanac can hold your attention while waiting for dinner to heat in the microwave, but a waterfall will make you forget you were hungry. Now go practice writing.

The Gift of Gab

The gift of gab – something I feel I have in spades; something I feel I will never discover.  I sail smoothly through one conversation about Christmas gifts and sink in the calm waters of chat about Christmas dinner.   The holiday season always hits me with contemplations of how we humans learn to interact. And how easy it is to miss the mark in routine exchanges.

Mother-in-law:  You’re looking quite nice today.

Me:  Yeh, I have to do laundry.

It turns out that typical human interactions depend on a variety of factors (isn’t that just typical.)  It depends on expectations – what each person in the interaction is expecting from the interaction.  It depends on circumstance, on what each person is doing or about to do.   It depends on each person’s experience in similar conversations.

You’re not reading this for a sociology lesson; I get it.  This applies to writing, and very much so.   Back to laundry.   Leaving that particular bit of dialogue alone could be fun.

Pop quiz:  What kind of tone is the character “me” using?

Answer:  Rueful, I bet, though, every person reading this answered something completely different.  Because our interactions depend on a variety of things, like expectation and experience, none of which is provided in that bit of dialogue, forcing you to rely on personal experience.

As a reader, I like a bit more than pure dialogue, though.   Yet I feel we often go overboard one way or the other – we provide way too much for our purposes, or we give too little information.

I just think we, as developing writers, need to consider how we approach providing information.   I think we need to play with it a little bit, experiment with our particular gift of gab and dabble in others.

Neither way is bad, of course.  Actually both have their merits.   Both have their problems.  Too little information and our readers will misinterpret something vital.   Too much information and it’s easy to get lost in the details.

A reader, looking at my dialogue above, should probably know that I was dropping my baby off at his grandmother’s house, that this was a regular visit.   Readers may or may not know that having a baby with you probably quadruples the chance that you’ll get something on your clothes.   And it’s guaranteed to be something you want off your clothes immediately but have no option but to ignore – possibly until laundry day.  Frankly, readers can figure that part out for themselves, or not.

It would be very pertinent for a reader to know that this person is a frequent social stumbler – which would be the point of including a scene like this, and considering how much of all the expectations / experiences / circumstances surrounding the conversation is important to know in this instance.

It’s worth consideration.   After all, every conversation about Chanukah presents or holiday movies, no matter how mundane, are the patterns upon which our friends and colleagues learn our personalities.  We learn about each other from them, and about ourselves.  Why wouldn’t it be the same for our characters?

How Important Is the Mundane?

mundane to do listHave you ever read a story set in a different time and/or place from where you live and wondered what day-to-day things are like for the characters?  Perhaps it’s set deep in the future, or perhaps it’s set hundreds of years ago and you find yourself confused about some of the details in the story because they just don’t match what you have experienced in your life.  I’ve been thinking about this more recently as my kids have been reading moldy-oldies for school and have had to do research just to be able to read these stories.

It is easy to make assumptions about what our readers will understand or know about the universe in a story. Some genres, like fantasy, tend to map out the universe pretty thoroughly because the assumption is that the reader does not live in a world ruled by magic or dragons. Other genres tend to make the assumption that we all just know and understand the universe because it’s, well, our universe.

But what about if I’m writing a story today which might be read 50 or 100 years from now?  Let’s say I’m writing about a mild-mannered computer programmer and his heroic adventures in coding software. Set in the late 20th century or the early part of the 21st century, there are certain aspects of computers that we, today, take for granted: keyboards, mice, disk drives, WiFi connections, USB ports, Microsoft Windows, etc.  But in the future, how many of these things will exist outside of museums?  My guess is that virtually none of our current technology will be around even 10 or 15 years from now, let alone 50 or 100.  So, in my exciting adventure in programming, it might be interesting for me to start my story right at the beginning of Our Hero’s day, describing his custom-built alarm clock which he designed to automatically start the coffee pot (via available wireless and/or Bluetooth connection) when he presses the snooze button. It might be interesting to think about his end-of-the-day routine, where he walks the dog while brushing his teeth, then uses a robotic cat litter cleaner to take care of the cats, then uses his phone to program the car to start up the car and turn on the heater at 7:57am the next day to ensure it is warm when he goes out to head to work.  And of course, each of the exciting and heroic events of his day will be detailed in the story – clearly, his never-ending battle against poor design and Blue Screens of Death will be totally epic.

But what about the more mundane details of life as a 21st century programmer? Does it matter if Our Hero drinks 3 pots of coffee each day? Does it matter if he writes code for Microsoft Windows or DOS?  Or that he specifically writes C++ code? In the future, when computer problems will be solved just by closing your eyes, using the Direct Neural Interface implanted into your retina at birth and thinking about the fix while facing in the general direction of the closest Overlording Processing Unit, there will be no understanding of what it means to sit down at a keyboard with a debugger and type code until your eyes go cockeyed and your fingers hurt.  Even today, when I read stories about programmers just 40 years ago who used punch cards to program, I don’t fully understand it. Maybe it doesn’t matter how the computer problem is resolved. But maybe it would allow for a greater understanding of the difficult lives 21st century programmers face if it were detailed in the book.

More generally, I sometimes have a hard time balancing the “important” day-to-day events with the “normal”, run-of-the-mill day-to-day events.  I mean, we all live in the world, we all have certain things we do most days:  we eat, we use the restroom, we shower/shave/groom/etc. How much of the routine stuff belongs in a story and how much is just too much filler?  I remember one story I wrote years ago. It had a word count limit of like 1200 words or so.  I wrote it and it had about 3000 when I got to “The End”.  (This is not uncommon for me to over-write and then pare it down).  As I went through to edit, I found I had written about a thousand words about the soup this character was eating. There was nothing particularly interesting or important about the soup or the way he ate it… it was just soup.  But for some reason, at the time I was writing the story, it was critically important that the soup be in there (I ended up cutting this in the final draft, but it made it through several revisions). Clearly, this was too much… unless it’s being read in a world or at a time when soup simply isn’t something people understand.  When I watch Star Trek, I often wonder about stupid stuff like “what does the bathroom look like”. Obviously, precious screen time is never going to be spent on bathroom or hygiene plot points, but far into the future, when we can travel to the stars in a matter of moments, will we still “use the bathroom”?  Or will it be something completely different (as an aside, there was at least one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where a character referenced the need to “go to Waste Extraction”, which, of course, lends various ideas that personal hygiene might be a little bit different in that particular future).

There is a certain school of thought that we don’t need to include any of the mundane things in our writing – we all know what a bathroom is and what is done in it, right?  We all know how to eat a bowl of soup.  And I  am certainly not saying we should be including step-by-step guides to an average character’s average day.  But if our works are going to be read in a different era – an era which is very different from today – I wonder if perhaps we should be including at least some details about the mundane stuff just so that readers in the future might have a way to connect to the work.  For example, I can imagine a future in which we no longer use sharp slivers of metal to remove unwanted facial hair. Perhaps it’s been replaced with a supersonic pulse that causes the unwanted hair to just fall out or disappear.  If a reader in this future reads my story and sees that my character is frantically looking for a styptic pencil… will the reader have enough contextual knowledge to know that the character has cut himself shaving and is looking for a way to quickly stop the bleeding?

I don’t presume to think that anything I write today will be on someone’s must-read list 50 or 100 years from now. That said, I certainly hope that one day I will write something that might be enjoyable for someone that far in the future. And if by some chance that is to happen, I will want my work to be approachable to those readers. Getting the balance right with regards to these details is something I think would be important, but I don’t think there is any one good formula for it. I’m curious to hear what you think: how much mundane detail is important, and how much is too much?