Jay is a plumber. He is on call at Mrs. Jane's today. Mrs. Jane's pipes are clogged. Jay pulls into the drive and sees Mrs. Jane on the porch. She looks upset and only stares ahead as Jay nears. Jay is tired. He wants to go home, but he has a job to do....
Boring, isn't it? The story is 2D, flat and repetitive. Sadly, despite the reality of the dull presentation, many writers slope into this type of narrative. When there is information in our brains, we tend to dump it onto the page in the most efficient manner. The problem with that lies in the ability of the reader to stay awake... Oftentimes, efficiency is the arch-nemesis of creative writing. It provides a great platform for the transference of data but a terrible platform to tell a story! In this short article, we are going to go over a few "do's and don't's" of the trade.
In the above story, we definitely received information. We know the names of two characters, Jay and Mrs. Jane. We know that Jay is a plumber and he is coming to fix Mrs. Jane's clogged drains. We have the groundwork of a story, right? So, what's wrong with it? Well, there's no flare, no imagination churning to life in our heads, no connection that draws us in! When we tell a story, we need to paint a picture that let's the reader draw conclusions. This keeps the reader engaged, active in a manner. Our picture can't be too vague, and yet it doesn't need an overwhelming presence of details. There is a fine line to walk that takes much practice but provides readers with a semi-filled canvas. You start the image, and the reader finishes it. This is called Showing rather than Telling.
Let's have an example in converse of the first.
Jay turned into the gravel drive, hearing the small, gray stones grinding beneath his tires. As he neared the house, he spotted Mrs. Jane, the resident, sitting on the front porch. Her brooding gaze pinned him, relaying her sour disposition at him having to be there at all. Jay looked away, checking the work order in his lap. Standard plumbing job, drains clogged on the base floor... 'Let's get this over with,' he thought, already eager to get home. It had been an exhausting week...
It doesn't take much effort to find the difference between the two renditions. With just a little work and imagination, we were able to take Jay from a flat, uninteresting character to a blue-collar worker that most people can connect with. We all know the pain of working a shift when we're beat! Jay does too, and now you and I understand him on a deeper level. Notice that there was very little added to the story, some gravel beneath the tires and Jay's internal voice, but nothing more. But the way in which the story is told, now, makes it active. Jay turned, heard, neared, spotted, looked away, checked, etc... There are a variety of actions taking place, requiring the readers to keep up. It's work! And though we don't want to exhaust our readers, we do want them to stay engaged.
To further the lesson, think of Anton Chekhov's quote, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." When we have a chance to paint a beautiful and important scene to our readers, we must find a creative way to relay it. If I was looking into the sky on a clear night, moon shining brightly above me, how best could I describe that to you if you were blindfolded?
I could say, "The moon is bright. It's casting a ring of light around it. I can see the indentations in the surface from here." You could probably picture that, right? But is it the most creative and impressive way that I could've described it?
How about this, "I can see rings of luminescence around the chalky orb, even divots from the craters in its surface. Although we are thousands of miles away, it's brilliance is more stunning than the nearby streetlights, casting away any semblance of darkness in the sky."
Not to become a sudden poet, but the second example gives us a deeper understanding of what the moon looks like in our perspective. Consider, as you write, that your audience is ignorant of the wonders in your mind. When you see a flower springing forth from the ground, describe it to us as if we have never beheld a flower before in our lives. Succinctly and purposefully, of course. Not every sentence in your writing requires such attention to detail, but rather the parts that mean the most to you as the author. The first kiss, the moment it all goes awry, the explosion, the firefight, the last goodbye from a dying character.... Whatever those scenes are, show them to the reader in a way that brings it to life!
And that's all, folks. Questions? Examples? Experiences? Share them below!
Steven C McCullough
Author and Agent to QuickFire.