Nov 012016

I’m starting a new series of writing-craft articles called “Don’t Do This”, taking an in-depth look at some of the more dubious choices made by published authors and TV/film writers/directors/editors, and the reasons you don’t want to copy them without knowing exactly what these elements will cost your story.

I want to do this without any nastiness towards my fellow authors – so, where the examples in question come from books, I am going to block out identifying details and show only the actual issue I’m discussing. I would ask commenters to please avoid shouting out the book title and/or author if they recognise the material (and I will censor comments that don’t abide by this request).

I will, however, identify commercially-successful Movies and TV shows I use as examples. These have a slew of professionals working on every aspect of production and therefore I think it is fair game to call them on their weaknesses. Secondly, there is greater likelihood that popular shows/movies have already been seen, so spoilers are less of an issue, and there is more chance to learn from specific examples. I will attempt to create a non-spoiler generic summary, though.

First up is Horror. Kristen Lamb wrote a blog post explaining How Horror Fiction Can Make Us Better Writers. I both agree and disagree with Kristen’s theory. Horror handicaps a story, by distancing the reader/audience. So, yes, it can make you a better writer because you have to work harder.  But a writer who doesn’t understand this handicap can get stuck in a cycle of attempting to increase the body count and the gore level, more graphically describing violence, and inventing new and improved ways of shocking their readers.

I explain my reasoning in detail using the TV show Fortitude as an example, here:

The Problem with Horror – a Critique of Fortitude

and here is the spoiler-free summary:

For Drama’s Sake, Don’t Write Horror

May 052010

***The following contains spoilers for the Australian television movie Little Oberon.***

Here is an example from a movie (Little Oberon) of showing the audience key elements of the story instead of telling them. (“Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell”: something my writing teachers always drummed into my head.) It’s much easier to show in a visual medium such as film, but you can still use these concepts in a book.

In the movie, a teenager was trying to find out who her real father was. She doesn’t find out herself during the course of the movie, but the audience does if they are paying attention, because the audience is let into the secret by a few brief scenes that need to be interpreted.

In one scene quite early in the movie, the teenager orders a cup of tea at a café. She quickly spoons three heaped sugars into the cup and stirs it quite lightly, tapping the spoon on the rim of the cup. She’s not really paying attention to what she’s doing, but the scene stands out because she’s being watched by a boy who’s interested in her.

Later, near the end of the movie, a man is offered a mug of tea together with a bowl of sugar. He heaps three sugars into the mug, stirs lightly, and taps the mug with the spoon. It is so similar to the manner in which the teenager took her tea that the audience is bound to be left with an “Aha” moment. This man is her real father.

It is now that the audience realise that there were other clues – also shown – to confirm this theory. We hear this man speak with an Irish accent. When another character tells the teenager a well-known Irish saying, she is entranced. It is clearly the first time she has heard the saying, but she takes it to heart, and repeats it at the end of the film – after the duplicate tea-stirring scene.

But none of the characters in the film notice this similarity – at least not yet. The film ends leaving open the possibility that the characters might still run into each other and notice these similarities. Of course, there’s also the possibility that some audience members would not have picked this clue up – but that doesn’t matter since it’s only part of the story. It’s more important that the audience who did notice it have enjoyed the little secret twist that only they are allowed to discover by themselves. There is no audience hand-holding by having the character turn round and tell the audience what just happened: “Wait a minute. You take three sugars in your tea, just like me. Are you my father?”

It’s important to trust your readers to discover and interpret the clues you leave when you show part of your story. When you decide over and over that you must confirm the clues by telling the reader what is going on, you really show the reader that you don’t trust her to be intelligent enough to pick up what you mean. And you also show the reader that you don’t have enough faith in your own ability as a writer. Let go of some of the control of your story.

More on Showing and Telling

Mar 052010

Since I made the decision to turn my trilogy into a stand alone novel I’ve been trying to choose between the options of interweaving the three related stories or running them separately as Parts 1, 2, and 3.

My heart likes the former. It will make for a fuller, rounder story, and it will take more writing skill. My head likes the latter option. It’s easier and means all I need to do is shorten book one and tag books two and three on the end.

The other issue my head has with interweaving the three stories is that I don’t get to write swathes of the book from one point of view at a time. This is something I really love about my draft of the first third of the book; there is only one viewpoint throughout and it makes for a very personal and intense ride. I’m reluctant to lose that. But my original trilogy idea involved three characters each with his or her own book told entirely from a single viewpoint. Now the three story strands are tied together with a theme that makes them far stronger and with that comes three different viewpoints.

So, subconsciously, I went looking for examples of stories told from multiple viewpoints. First I was reminded of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy, which I found rich with the layers of characters each thinking theirs was the life that was important and worth fighting for. But I also remember the frustration of having to leave a character at a crucial moment in order to ride with the next character. I felt taken against my will until I settled again into the story. But Liveship used many characters’ viewpoints; with only three I will be able to treat my readers to a number of chapters in one viewpoint at a time.

That was in the back of my mind yesterday when I picked up Inkspell* by Cornelia Funke; a much simpler book and one that has the same reader age range as my story. It was much easier to see my dilemma tackled in a book like this, and handled satisfactorily. Inkspell’s viewpoint characters have as many chapters as necessary to follow a plot strand until there is a logical segue to the next character. There is no rigidity to locking the characters into a single chapter at a time because the next chapter must switch point of view. It’s fluid, and I think that comes from the way it was written: Funke says that she free wrote this book so quickly she could barely type fast enough to keep up with the story.

Another trilogy told from alternate viewpoints is Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy*. Although there are only two viewpoint characters in the first book, and three in the second and third, the viewpoint character’s name appears in the header of every page of the chapters he or she owns so the reader always knows whose story is being told. So this is another way of presenting it. However, what I did find slightly off putting is that the author relies on this to alert the reader so that he doesn’t have to start the chapter with the viewpoint character’s name. But the header doesn’t appear on the first page of a chapter so occasionally it requires turning the page to check which character we’re on in order to imagine the scene properly. I think I would rather just use the character’s name in the first line.

So my plan of attack is to continue writing the rest of this story from whichever point of view is required, preferably several chapters per character though. Then when I have a rough first draft completed I will redo my synopsis and fit in parts of the second book (which I’d already started before deciding to consolidate), and then work out where I need to write scenes from the point of view of the second and third characters to slot into the first part. And sand and varnish.

I think it’s doable.

*Book Depository is a better option for non-US book buyers.

Nov 132008

I’ve been stuck on editing an important scene on the first page of my completed children’s book, and eventually I decided to get some opinions from other writers (thanks Wendy, Lauri, and Sher). 

Showing a scene allows the reader to own it, and therefore makes it more powerful and memorable. So it stands to reason that one would use the technique of showing for important scenes. I often advise writers and clients to let go of the control over every single aspect of their book. If a detail is not important to the plot – such as the colour of a character’s hair – then let the reader choose. This doesn’t mean cutting out all such description; it means knowing when extraneous description is slowing the pace of the story, or distracting the reader and breaking his concentration. 

But there are times when you need the reader to be (cough) on the same page as you. In my efforts to let go of control over my reader’s perceptions, I relinquished one detail too many in this vital scene. All three critiques contained the perception that the main character seems fearless, cheeky, and brave. In this scene, however, it is important plot-wise that the main character is afraid. I knew there was something wrong with this scene, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Thankfully others could, without even knowing what they were looking for. This is what makes beta readers so useful. 

More on “Showing versus Telling”

Comments (2)
Selma – 
That is excellent advice and very relevant to where I am at the moment. A fresh pair of eyes is invaluable. Glad the others could help you out!
Posted 20 November 2008

Elle – 
Thanks Selma. 
Posted 21 November 2008