Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Great Writing Techniques

This is actually "showing versus telling" phase II (or whatever phase I'm on at this point), but I didn't want to confuse blog titles. And I'll say upfront that I'm going to get a little cagey with references because although I'd like to include massive amounts of text from a couple of books, I'm afraid of getting the heck sued out of me.
So bottom line, get the following two books if you're interested in examples of total mastery of the technique of "showing".
Gutshot Straight, by Lou Berney
Agnes and the Hitman, by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

You only have to read the first chapter of both, or either, of these books to understand this entire concept. It's right there, in brilliant writing examples.

What is "showing"? "Showing" is, in essence, telling a character's story.

That's it. Simple, right? Well, not exactly. And a of folks get the concept all mixed up with the mechanics of writing.

"Showing" is not your writing style, the grammar you use, sentence construction, or use/non-use of adverbs and adjectives. It is, quite simply, story-telling. (Which is sort of awkward, since we say "story telling" but it really should be "story showing", I guess, considering that's what writers are really trying to achieve.)

This difficulty in finding an exact, easily understood definition is exactly why it's so massively difficult to teach to others, or even describe in any coherent fashion. And why I keep going back over it, time and time again as I try to work it out in my own little pea-brain. But then I read Crusie/Mayer and Berney—and Berney really brought it home to me. I was completely blown away by the first chapter. It is the most beautiful example of what you should be doing that I have ever seen. Ever.

The first chapter is where most writers go "wrong". They are so anxious to plunge their characters into the story, that they try to tell us what the main characters are like. Hence "telling". For example, a writer may say: Shake was a smart wheel man who gallantly took the rap for his boss and ended up in prison.

That sentence is "telling" the reader that Shake is smart, gallant, and got jail time. The reader might justifiably argue, "How smart could Shake be if he wound up in prison?" And the reader would be justified, because there is no evidence presented indicating that Shake is smart. Or gallant.

So…Berney didn't make that mistake. He starts Gutshot Straight with Shake involved in a card game in prison. And Shake is playing cards with a tough psycho in jail for manslaughter. During the course of the game, Shake reveals move by move, his astute, experienced judgment—"showing" us that he's smart—in a way. And it shows us Shake's fatal flaws in judgment that keep putting him in bad situations—like jail.

The card game lets Berney reveal the kind of man Shake is, without long, drawn out explanations about how Shake could be wily and shrewd, but still stupid enough to get into trouble, repeatedly.

The really, really cool thing about this intro chapter: not only is it a brilliant portrayal of Shake's character, but Berney does two other things with this scene. Shake is playing cards with a real badass, and Shake (unwisely) wins. And Shake is two days away from getting out of jail, so if he gets into a fight, he won't get out-even if he manages to survive.

"So what?" you ask. I'll tell you—the tension is unbelievable. You want Shake to win, because the other guy is a vicious idiot. But if Shake wins, he may not live long enough to get out of prison. Shake has to do some quick thinking. So…not only does this scene introduce us to Shake, but it ramps up the tension! You're terrified that Shake is going to get the cr@p beaten out of him.

And wait! There's more. We don't just have this scene and then move into the "real story" which takes place after Shake is released from prison. Berney takes elements from this scene and those elements & characters become important again, later.

Holy moly, Batman! Berney is really workin' it…hard.

I'm going to give you just a little of the first part—hopefully not enough to infringe on any copyrights or get myself into trouble. I'll insert a few comments to help clarify how this text is working in the "show versus tell" arena.
Shake, on the other hand, was not just a rangy white guy up on another GTA, forty-two years old and feeling every minute of it. But he'd survived the last fifteen months here at Mule Creek and wasn't going to roll over just because some pumped-up, puffed-up con glared at him.
{NOTE: If Berney stopped here, he might have devolved into "telling" but the scene continues to show you exactly what Shake is made of.}
He called Vader's bet. "I'll pay to see that last card," he said, and gave Vader a friendly smile.
Missouri Bob, the dealer, took his time with the turn. Missouri Bob's hand was tooled with crude blue tattoos—roses and rose stems and thorns.
Finally, dramatically, he showed them the last card.
It's Shake's actions that show who he is, not the miniscule bit of description there in the first paragraph. We see his strengths, and more importantly, the flaws that drive the entire story. If Shake wasn't so smart, he'd be dead. But likewise, if he wasn't such a smartass, he also wouldn't wind up in so much trouble.

That's at least part of Gutshot Straight.

Crusie and Mayer are also masters extraordinaire of the art of showing the reader the character of the characters. In the very first paragraph of Agnes and the Hitman, we're shown Agnes's character in another scene that like Berney's, does triple duty. Like Berney, we're immediately thrust into a situation that shows the essence of Agnes's strengths and weaknesses.

We immediately like Agnes because she's defending her fiancé in a conversation that gradually reveals how unworthy her fiancé is of her affection. And she's got a sense of humor about it. Here are the first few sentences.
One fine August evening in South Carolina, Agnes Crandall stirred raspberries and sugar in her heavy nonstick frying pan and defended her fiancé to the only man she'd ever trusted.
It wasn't easy.
"Look, Joey, Taylor's not that bad." Agnes cradled the phone between her chin and shoulder turned down her CD player…
Now, if Crusie and Mayer were less adept writers, they might have resorted to describing Agnes and telling you that Agnes was a nice woman in a relationship with someone who was not right for her. Instead, we get a very brief conversation that is almost immediately (by page 2) interrupted by a nut with a gun breaking in to steal Agnes's dog. And she bops him on the head with her frying pan. (By the way, this is a hilarious scene, in a sick sort of way.)

Which shows us that while you may have thought she was a wuss stuck in a relationship with a man using her, she's not. Because she reacts quickly, and quite thoroughly, in defense of her dog. Gee, she really is kind. J She's got a dog. (That's sort of an inside joke—so many writers who have difficulty writing sympathetic heroines are often told to have the heroine own a pet of some kind…) But wait! There's more! Agnes has anger management problems and has been seeing a psychiatrist for therapy! Wow! Just like Shake, Agnes has major issues which are directly responsible for what happens in the story.

The character flaws are the story.

So we get to see Agnes in action—literally—which reveals a quick-thinking, smart woman, who has a lousy fiancé, and someone is after her dog. All in one and a half pages. Just like Berney, we get to see the hero/heroine behave in a way that perfectly reveals her strengths and weaknesses, creates tension (what is going to happen to Agnes' in her confrontation with the gun-toting idiot?) and sets up information & characters that come into play, later, in the major plotline.

Now that's "showing". No wasted time getting the tension going, and no telling the reader what he or she should think about the characters. The characters show us what to think about them by their actions.
-------That's all I have on that subject for this evening.


Mark said...

Wow! Those were some great examples of showing instead of telling. Thanks for your expertise and viewpoint on that old salt: "Show, don't tell."

Anonymous said...

Great post.