Archive for April 20th, 2012
After dropping the idea in an abstract fashion into the last post, let me provide some context for those reading and not used to idea as it applies to writing.
For years, dating back to my earliest fiction writing classes “show don’t tell” was a phrase thrown about during the workshops but was usually defined vaguely at best. It often went something like, “This part here is okay, but it might work better if you show more than you tell.” As a novice, I heard the basic idea behind the phrase but understood it more as “add more adjectives” and failed to really understand it at an intuitive level until much later. It took me attending a writer’s workshop (again with the Uncle Orson reference) to really get a clearer understanding of why this is a sticking point concept for newer writers.
Telling is natural. Everyone tells stories. Every. One. When you’re out with your friends pause (mentally) long enough to listen to what’s actually being said and you’ll hear them. “This happened to me at work…” or “The other day at the gym…” Telling. Because you know the speaker, you know some of the context of the story – maybe the location being used, some of the people – you can follow the events without having to stop often and go, “Wait, what? I need more exposition.”
Physically being present while someone is relaying a story is a passive relationship – you have that opportunity to ask questions or to connect with the emotional delivery of the speaker. Watching a well-acted play or movie can deliver much the same response because you have the opportunity to pick up on subtlties of character or context of location.
Reading fiction, however, is a much more active experience insofar as if it’s not written down the reader doesn’t have the chance to experience it. It’s the power of the reader’s connection with the story experience that determines how well the narrative ultimately works.
Look at it another way, think back to your days as a kid. How many times were you told by someone – a parent, teacher, older sibling – not to do something. They could even tell you why you shouldn’t do something – touch an active burner on the stove is a classic example, becuase it will hurt – but until you actually did it, experienced the moment of searing pain as the soft pink flesh of your finger touched the spiraled metal coil, do you actually understand what they were telling you.
Showing is the act of presenting the story, stretching the moments out and providing necessary details so the reader comes away having lived the experience of the story without having the scars from the stove top.
Classic example: Telling: John was angry.
Showing: John’ paced the floor, his arms shaking as he repeatedly clenched and opened his fists.
Yes, showing may involve adjectives, but ones very specific to the intended vibe and tome of the storyones, not lines of bloated purple-prose intended to add layer upon layer of paint on the canvas so the image eventually gets lost. It’s painting with subtlties instead of definites. It’s giving the readers the chance to experience the world for themselves. It’s breathing life into the otherwise inanimate.
I have been thinking a lot about Outlining recently… (yes, I’m cheating with today’s title since I am already anticipating talking more about it in the future) and I think part of it started with this post… One of the sites I frequently check out is Magical Words, and it’s a great location for conversation and perspective, especially for those in the process of breaking into the game.
For the sake of catching up those not used to the writing game, here’s some brief background info. In the writing world there are two extreme camps of technique: “Plotters” and “Pantsers.” Just in case the distinction isn’t clear by labels alone, here’s a distinction. For “Pantsers” think “Seat of their Pants” as their approach to work. The Improv type in theatre, just making it us as they go. “Plotters” are the other end, working things out in advance and knowing how the core of the story will work before they start logging the text. Plotters are usually identified by their outlines and (potentially) copius amounts of notes generated in the development stage of a project – think Tolkein and the reams of posthumous publications from his Middle Earth world building notes.
Despite identifying more, at least conceptually, with one extreme or the other most writers (my opinion) fall somewhere in the middle. At least, once they’ve been at it for a while.
When I started, I was more of a pantser and could manage that approach for a short story, but not so much when I tried anything longer than a few thousand words. I attempted to blend the two, starting a project by pantsing then providing carrots to lead my efforts for the next writing session, then adding more carrots at the end of future sessions. Using that approach, I found that I could extend my reach by several thousand words, but it was still, at heart, a pantsing approach.
It’s taken a lot of reflection and self-evaluation to realize that my way hasn’t worked – I may be able to get away with the “carrot” approach in the future, or for smallish/novella length pieces. The fundamental reason for faiure to work, though, stems from not knowing the story well enough to know where I am trying to write to. Something that plotting should help with, and often involves summoning that oft dreaded, evil beast.
My 9th-grade self cringes at the thought of an outline and the rigid form that was practically beaten into us during the “This-is-how-you-write-a-researh-paper-and-the-only-way-I-will-accept-it” portion of the class, so much so that it stunted my thought process on what it meant to “outline” a creative project. I outlined a fantasy trilogy (as envisioned, but it could just be a long book in three parts) using the Roman numeral and subheading approach, then shelved it because I thought I killed the motivation behind it (read: I pantsed the outline which told me the basic story, but I didn’t actually show said story).
The revelation I’ve had in the last year is to take “Formal Outline” idea and toss it, and think in terms of a Synopsis approach – something that tells the story events. Sketch out a watercooler conversation version of the story, the kind of thing you might hear when telling someone about a movie or tv episode – “Dude goes here, this happens. Becuase of that, he decides to do this.” Hit the highlights, maybe with a shade of details, but without too much emphasis on the finer details of dialogue, mood, character depth and the like.
Thinking of an outline in this sense feels more natural since it involves ultimately ironing out the basic beats of the story, allowing the act of writing to become an exercise in guided pantsing.
Short version: Figure out what the story is and how you want to tell it, then endeavor to show the story.
For the record, I do still have the fantsy outline, and now that I’ve had this epiphany I am planning on ressurecting it as a project to see if my ideas from twelve years ago are still viable or if it would need serious revision work.
So…. I’ve been meaning to post the teaser since I found it about two weeks ago, but the information I was finding on the album’s release date was still speculative, not confirmed.
But then… I went to the band’s site today, after hearing that the new single would be announced yesterday, and saw this [below] on the frontpage, along with tour dates (for, what I am guessing, may be a first leg? Maybe 2013 dates will come out, extending this tour like they have the last couple.)
The album’s due out 12 June, and the single should be hitting “stands” 24 April. Looks like I know what I’ll be doing on 12 June.