Hello from Austin Texas! I just finished up a few days at the Texas Library Association’s annual conference (awesome time with awesome folks!) and have moved across the river for the Writer’s League of Texas YA A to Z Writer’s Conference (also awesome!). As part of my workshop duties here I’ve been given a few opening chapters of manuscripts to critique and one of them has really crystallized something for me (I’ve always said that you can learn as much from reading unpublished work than you can from published). Basically, I’ve learned that another way to look at the familiar adage of “show don’t tell” is “experience don’t dictate.”
The basic premise of “show don’t tell” is that you should show the reader the character/emotions/action of the character rather than spelling it out. There are a number of examples such as:
Tell: He was angry and wanted to interrupt.
Show: He dug his nails into his hands, lips vibrating with the effort of holding back.
Tell: The car swerved over the thick ice and clipped against my legs.
Show: The sound of tires losing traction is like the feeling of slipping down the stairs: unavoidable and startling. And then there’s the rush of the moment as the beast roars toward you, huge and looming, metal twisting impossibly while smoke drifts from brakes trying to hold on. In the moment my bones shattered I wondered at the noise, at the brilliant sharpness of pain.
Tell: The bar was noisy, making it hard to talk.
Show: My throat strained at the shouting, the vibration of noise stinging under my skin.
You catch my drift. I feel like I’ve heard the adage, “show don’t tell” so often that it’s almost become meaningless. Then I began to critique the first few pages of this manuscript. The writer is good — able to set the scene and unfold the story; however, as I read I found myself feeling as though I was at a movie, watching the characters act out their roles without my involvement. That’s when it struck me that she was telling and perhaps even showing me the scene… but she wasn’t letting me experience what it meant to be her character. That’s what I craved: the experience. I wanted to crawl into the character’s skin, know what she was feeling and thinking, revel in the moment — the noise, the smell, the sights and emotions.
So, how do you do that as an author? I think it goes back to the basic idea that every character is a unique individual. When you think about it, we all view the world through a different lens and the same is true for our characters. If we all walked into the same room, we’d all experience it differently. Some of us would take in the visual cues: the color of the walls, the height of the ceiling; others would take in the tactile: the temperature of the air, the brush of carpet; others would take in the sound: construction through the windows, air conditioning humming; and still others the smell: fresh paint or wilted flowers in stale water.
To that we all add our own experience and emotions: perhaps we remember the last time we smelled stale water and dried daisies — it was two weeks after the bouquet sent in remembrance of a loved one’s death and we hated to throw them away because that would make it final. Or maybe they were flowers of congratulations and we kept them around because anything — even dying flowers — made the dull office seem brighter. Or maybe we were just too lazy and the effort of stuffing dead flowers into an over flowing trash can was just one task too many.
Those are all different stories for different characters, different ways each one would approach the same scene. This is what I think takes writing to the next level — not just showing the scene but letting the reader experience it through THAT character’s point of view. To do this we have to step out of our own lens and take on that of the character. We have to crawl under their skin and figure out who they are and how the view the world. Ultimately, we have to mentally LIVE their stories as we tell them, not just dictate them to the reader.