Gotta love honesty in this business. I've had little feedback at all, let alone honest feedback, so today, courtesy of Jason's generosity, I got my very first writing lesson ever, and not only that, it was on 'show vs tell', my nemesis. In fact, he told me he's going to be speaking at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association meeting next week, and get this, he's going to be talking about 'show don't tell'. I wish I could attend, but, sorry folks, he gave me a taste first.
His words: "It's a bugaboo for everyone" and I can believe that.
We all know what emotions feel like, but we can't see them. They are invisible. My telling you how someone feels is 'telling'. So how do you 'show' an emotion? You do so my showing us the reaction to emotion. If a person is sad, what are they doing? If they are angry, what do you see? The people around us show us their emotions all the time, we've just become so accustomed to seeing them that we don't really see them anymore. They are the white noise in our life that fills everything around us and dictates to us how we react to those around us. Your friend is crying, you put your arm around their shoulders. Your brother is throwing a temper tantrum, you maybe leave the room. So here's the stumbling block for writers. Not to tell your readers that your friend is sad, but to let them know that she is crying. Not to tell your readers that your brother is really pissed, but to let them hear his incoherent screams and stamping of feet (or maybe the slamming of a door too, as you leave the room)
Jason gave me a simple assignment.
Character: John, a typical middle-class office worker.
Character: Mary, a girl who dumped him wretchedly in High School, whom John has not seen in 15 years.
Invisible thing: Although John has moved on with his life, deep down he still really hates Mary for what she did.
Challenge: write a scene which allows the reader to infer the invisible thing, the emotion, without ever naming it. That is, don't use the word "hate" anywhere in the scene. Make us understand "hate" without telling us that he feels hatred.
I took like ten minutes and jotted down a quick scene:
My spur of the moment effort:
John walked down the street, whistling the theme song from Star Wars; his intended goal, the coffee shop up the street. Cappuccino mocha with cinnamon on top. Mmmmm he could taste it already, he wanted it so bad. He looked in the window on the way to the door. There she sat. What was she doing there? He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked on by. Suddenly, cappuccino mocha with cinnamon tasted
Yeah, I bombed, but in bombing I learned, and Jason continued to teach. I got John down sorta. Where he was going wasn't important to the big picture. I tried to show that seeing her made going to his favorite coffee shop for his favorite cappuccino was now totally ruined because she had found the place. Nearly totally leaving her out of the story.
So I tried again. I was sorely tempted to move the scene to a more fictional setting because in truth I know nothing of city life and less about what an office worker might do about a years-old bitter breakup. Totally out of my element on all counts. But no, being out of my element wasn't going to change the 'show don't tell' weakness, so I stuck with it.
John glances up at the clock, then he closes the file and turns to prepare to file it away. A knock sounds at his door. “Come in,” he calls and turns to finish his task. He hears the click of high heels as the visitor comes to stand in front of his desk. He turns, his mouth open with a ready greeting, but as soon as he sees her, he clamps his jaw shut.
“Hello, I was wondering if you could help me find George Michael’s office. I’m afraid I’m a little lost.”
George, the office gossip. “Never heard of him. I’m busy.” He turns away and opens the bottom drawer of his desk. He rummaged through the files there until he hears her heels click out of the room and the door close behind her. With a hiss he rammed the drawer home. He looked at the clock again and then up at the ceiling, never really seeing either of them. Abruptly, he shoves away from his desk, yanks his jacket from the coat hook and strides from the office, slamming the door in his wake.
The change of scene didn't help. This effort failed even worse than before. Here, there was no connection what-so-ever between John and the woman who entered the office. Who was she, who knows. Why was John pissed, coulda been anything. Maybe he was just a total jerk.
Then Jason pointed out something - yet another one of my weaknesses. Two of my stories involve main characters who either can't talk or simply don't have anyone to talk to - you know the kind, the professional wall-flower. 'Showing' in a story without talking is really very hard. But just because they aren't talking doesn't mean they're not thinking. So guess what guys, thoughts are on the way, at least for those two characters - and for others too.
Back to my lesson - Jason took me back to the coffeehouse and showed me how it should have been done:
John froze as he caught a glimpse of a woman outside the Starbucks.
'Mary?' John wondered, as she slipped out of sight. 'Oh my God, that really WAS her.' He took a sip of his latte but tasted only bile. He dropped his newspaper on the table and chucked his half-full cup in the trash. 'Dammit. Now I have to find a new Starbucks.'
John grabbed his briefcase and made for the door, waving one more time to the cute barista with the ponytail. "Nice knowing you."
That covered it all. We know who she is. We know how he feels about her. And we can feel his disgust and anger, and we know it was directed at Mary, blaming her for his having to find a new coffee shop. All the whys and wherefores aren't important to this scene - the emotion - the invisible - was what we were after.
Sigh - can I do it? I'm going to give it my best shot. I love a challenge.
I've subscribed to Jason's blog. It is full of tips and tricks about character development, among other things. Jason has been blogging for 2 years now. It'll take me weeks to read everything he posted, but it will be a ready research resource for years to come.
Thanks so much for being in my world, Jason