Editor Linda Clare continues our examination of Fatal Flaw: # 6 Show, Don’t Tell. Writers often succumb to this fatal flaw of fiction writing, explaining and telling and summarizing instead of showing action as it’s happening. (If you missed the first post, be sure to read it here.)
In a fictional story, readers imagine that the characters have real lives, just as they themselves do. But the writer who tries to act out a character’s every moment will find readers snoozing sooner rather than later. We’re often told to “show, don’t tell.” So when is showing actually the less effective choice?
The Usual Routine
Most of the time, a character’s routine is not crucial to the story. Habits such as hearing the alarm clock, shuffling into the kitchen for that first hot mug of coffee or tea, getting dressed, or other mundane activities may be commonplace for all of us but rarely make for exciting prose. Readers will assume your character isn’t running around naked or heading to work without brushing her teeth—unless being unclothed or unbrushed is important to the story.
By important, I mean that readers won’t understand the story or will be missing important information if any of these routines is not acted out. Most of the time, you can omit entirely any reference to the things we all do every day—from gargling to gassing up the SUV. If you must mention an action and it’s NOT crucial, a simple summary will suffice (for example: she brushed her teeth.)
Remember, you are managing your reader. Whatever you dramatize will appear most important to your reader. If it’s unimportant or assumed, use a quick summary—or better yet, leave it out.
Step by Step
As you manage readers, you’ll be making decisions on not only which parts of the story you’ll dramatize (that is, detail in scenes) but how you’ll dramatize those parts.
I once had a writing student who wrote a scene about a man taking some girls to a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant. Unfortunately, the scene was written in a blow-by-blow manner, as if we were actually living it. The waitress appeared to take their orders. Each of the three characters gave their individual orders, which the waitress dutifully wrote down. Then when the food arrived, readers suffered through each bite of the burgers, fries, and shakes. By the end of the scene, nothing much had happened (relevant to the story), but readers must surely have been starving and wanted to run for the nearest burger joint!
To grasp this concept, think about a good movie you’ve seen. Chances are, every moment was not acted out. Scenes in films and television often “cut away” to eliminate the mundane, the boring, or the nonrelevant. As the late writing teacher and author Gary Provost taught, writers don’t have to account for every moment in a story. If nothing happens, skip to the next important event .
Driving to the Story
Many first novels begin with a character traveling from one spot to another. This is usually not recommended. The character is usually alone or thinking about what she is plans to do; the writer usually inserts backstory; and the character rides, floats, or drives instead of being a part of solid action that plays out the story. In many novel drafts, these “driving to the story” episodes can be safely eliminated, and the spot where the action begins can move up to the opening.
If you’ve written a novel opening in which your character is riding or driving to a new place and sits staring out a window, take a look at your next two chapters. Where does your character actually begin to interact with the new environment? This is often the better place to begin your novel.
Here is a fabricated Before passage of my historical novel From Where the Sun Now Stands to show you how writing about the mundane, writing too many blow-by-blow details, and driving to the story hobbles the reader and makes my job as a manager much more difficult.
I was slow getting out of bed that April morning. I brushed my hair and poured water from the ewer into the basin. I splashed my face and wondered what the heathens would be like. I knew so little about the Nez Perce tribe and even less about the Idaho Territory. I pulled on my rose-madder colored skirt and buttoned the bodice—those pearl buttons were as tiny as hen’s teeth. Would Sue or Kate MacBeth even approve of my wardrobe?
I tried to be grateful for the coffee the riverboat’s first mate offered. “Thanks,” I said, curling my fingers around the tin mug. The sky’s constant drizzle made for plenty of mud. I sipped the strong brew and asked a bearded deckhand. “How long until we reach the mission?”
He scratched his chin whiskers. “I reckon, miss, it’s a three-hour trip at best. You might want to get some grub from the mess.”
“What’s on the menu?”
“Biscuits and gravy, I hear.”
I took a last sip of the coffee, careful not to swallow the grounds. “I suppose I should eat something.” I groaned, thinking of the lengthy boat ride. My back was already sore from the rough cot in the stateroom. But why was I in a rush to meet the two sisters from Ohio? I’d heard that at least one of them—the older, if I remembered correctly—was whip smart and most definitely in charge. But I’d also heard Sue McBeth was a humorless old maid, unlike her more jovial sister Kate. How two spinsters were able to tame the wild Indians was beyond me.
The deckhand grinned. “Just follow yer nose to the galley.”
I shivered. Last night’s gravy had been cold and lumpy. I only hoped this morning’s breakfast was still hot. And here’s the actual passage from the novel . . .
The heathens, as I called them then, pressed around the wagon that April day, their curious black eyes shiny despite the drizzle. Dogs and Indian children trotted beside many of the adults. The Nez Perce Indians did not frighten me in the least, but I doubt I could have climbed down without stepping on someone. I didn’t have a chance to attempt it, for right then a petite, severe-looking woman dressed in black took charge.
The woman, who walked with a limp, waved her arms about, shooing the group away from where I sat in the wagon. “Stand back, all of you,” she commanded, and most of the men and women obeyed, shrinking back like a gaggle of geese. One man, his black braids topped with a tall three-feathered hat, stood his ground, flanked by a large yellow dog. The woman’s frown softened. “Desmond, see to it that Miss Clark’s belongings are taken to her quarters.”
Note that in the After version, the travel is eliminated, and the routine and the step-by-step of getting dressed are never mentioned. We get right into the story, and the character actually meets the other characters instead of hearing about them or planning to meet them.
If you have written a scene in which your character is traveling to a new destination, what was your rationale in including the trip itself? Which bits of setup and information might you take out if you instead begin with more dynamic, meaningful action? Take a look at a scene where your character does a series of actions. Could any be combined or eliminated? Are any of them part of most people’s routine? If so, what is your reason for including these actions?