Sunday, November 17, 2019

Show Vs. Tell: 

A False Binary

Image result for show vs tell

Think Continuum!

We've heard the adage "show don't tell" so often it's practically become the golden rule of writing.  The question is ...should it be? Like so many binary comparisons --male/female --the use of time in fiction has been confined to a false contrast that should actually be described as a continuum.  As anyone can see from a quick read of most writing, there are places where telling is just fine.  The final line of Chopin's ironic "The Story of an Hour" is a great example:

When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease--of the joy that kills. 

And when it comes to showing there is a big difference between what I've labeled "dramatic telling" and "dramatization."

Dramatic Telling is a handy way of conveying information in a condensed way that much more absorbing and active than telling, but doesn't require the full development of dramatization (or scene work).  Here's an example from the novel The Year of the Sawdust Man which opens

The Year of the Sawdust Man  "I knew every inch of Mama's room.  We spent our days there ever since we moved to that airy house on Main Street--cutting paper dolls from magazine advertisements or acting out plays from the books we'd read.  Mama loved the models in the Ladies Home Journal because we drew and colored them ourselves.  For our plays, we made clothes out of the laundry Mama cleaned for our neighbors.  Mama enjoyed playacting more than cleaning clothes. We spent so much time in that breezy room overlooking Minkie's Mercantile, I knew every ring of dust, every pierced earring, every piece of handmade clothing she owned." 

Here, we learned a lot about the relationship between mother and daughter, the character of both people, the setting, and there's a hint the central conflict in this story, but it's not a scene, so it's not fully showing these people in this room. We see them through a condensed summary of dramatic telling which often uses

  1. Active Voice--strong verbs, focus on action, concrete details
  2. Specific Language--it's not just clothing, but "every piece of handmade clothing"
  3. Double Duty Details--details that show more than one element of writing at a time
  4. Condensed Time
Here we see a mother who acts in plays, reads books, and creates paper dolls with her daughter rather than cleaning the house or washing the clothes she's paid to clean which reveals how close they are to each other, how artistic they both are, and how unfocused her mother is on practical matters.  This paragraph reveals a lot using a form of telling that mimics showing. 

Double Duty Details are one of the tools used to create this effect. It's a term I'm well-known for and I've written quite a few blog posts on the topic, so I'll be brief here and point out that by saying that she wore clothes she should be washing because she "enjoyed playacting more than cleaning clothes" which shoes both her creativity and her lack of inhibition and her lack of commitment to gainful employment which shows her identity, her actions, and hints at the central conflict of the story--Mama, AKA Heirah Rae Bergen, struggles to fit in the society in which she lives and eventually withdraws from it, leaving her daughter feeling abandoned. 

Condensed Time is a great propel the plot forward while covering a lot of ground in the process. To feel the bite of the loss of her mother, we need to know what Nissa's (the narrator's) relationship with her mother was like before she discovers she's left town alone. This quick summary of their time together in "that airy room overlooking Minkie's Mercantile" shows us the creativity and closeness of their relationship while hinting at tension below the surface. Why else would Nissa be so hyper-aware of everything in her mama's room? We also learn that they live in a small town in the past --living on a main street with a Mercantile gives that away--the airy-breezy room also suggests a warm climate that is likely also Southern according to the word choices here. 

Let's look at another quick example from Worth in which the narrator explains the war between the farmers and the ranchers in his 1870s Nebraskan community when he realizes their new family member, an NYC orphan would have no idea what they mean by "fence fighting" between the two rival families the Gantry's and the Danvers. Nate says, "Fence fighting didn't mean a thing to a boy from a city, but I knew Mr. Clemson spoke of cattle trampling crops, then turning up lame or missing, a Danver boy drowning on Gantry land, and now the killing of Danver sheep. 

Here, through the use of specific details, strong verbs, and summarized action, I used condensed time to convey the backstory of the feud that works as the backdrop to the family drama of the story.

Dramatization, on the other hand, puts in the moment when action is taking place. That can happen in a full scene that uses telling and dramatic telling to bring us into the central events of the story. When lightning strikes the ground and spooks the horses hitched to the wagon Nate stands in--he is crippled in the accident that follows.  

I use dramatic telling to lead it off saying, "Then lightning struck ground, sending those horses toward the house and my leg into pieces." 

Then I bring readers into the moment:

"My mind gobbled up the world in that instant, then spit it back at me in tiny little moving pictures--the look of the wheel turning all splintered and gray--the ground rolling by with rocks hopping up--my pitch tumbling to the ground and ricocheting. No sound. No feeling. Just a jumble of pictures all moving faster than the rain itself." Notice that telling is used here with "No sound" and "No feeling" which work because most folks have been in that moment when disaster strikes, time slows down, and you notice every detail.  

Dramatization also often incorporates full scenes with dialogue, character descriptions, and so on.  

When you think of show vs tell as a way of controlling of time in your writing and notice that it's more about a continuum than the binary, you gain greater control of your ability to propel the story forward and realize there is a time for everything --telling, dramatic telling, and dramatization--as long as you bring us into the moment when it's essential.  

Monday, April 1, 2019

Let's Leap in Spring 

Poetry to Ponder: Writing Spring Poetry with Specific Wordsa fun tutorial for young poets

Did you know that a dog can show you what spring is all about? 
Katrin B. at Pixaby

Don't believe me? Then click on the link to read this poem by Marilyn Nelson. It's called "April is a Dog's Dream"

Care to try a little spring poetry of your own? Then watch this tutorial on writing a spring poem using Nelson's poem as a mentor text:

(If the video doesn't play automatically, just hit play again) 

Here's a look at the writing advice from the video with a link to the Marily Nelson poem "April is a Dog's Dream"

Poetry to Ponder: Writing a Poem About Your Favorite Spring Place

When writing poetry:

Be Specific

1.     Choose words that give readers as picture
a.     Soft grass growing
b.     Sweet breeze blowing
c.     Wind full of singing
d.     Chew and charge and chase

Park, playground, creek

Share words with a partner
            What can you see?
            What do you smell?
            What do you hear?

2.     Sense words—see, hear, touch, taste, smell

3.     Action words—growing, blowing, singing, chew, charge, and chase

4.     Make music with your words—look at how you can make fun sounds with words

a.     Repeating sounds like “ing” -growing, blowing, singing or “ch” in chew, charge, chase
b.     Look at the music in specific words like “breeze”

Most importantly—have fun sharing your favorite place in spring in a poem of your own!

Poets: If you'd like to share your poem here, feel free to share it in the comments.  

Teachers: If you have a poetry exercise you'd like to share, please do.

Write on!

Saturday, January 5, 2019

If You See It My Way: 5 Ways to Create Authentic Worldview

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

“The purpose of most great writing seems to be to reveal, in an ethical light, who we are."   ---  Anne Lammott, Bird by Bird

Who we are is revealed in all the ways we express our worldview. Our descriptions, actions, desires, and voice are all shaped by how we see the world. Creating realistic and compelling characters that offer unique views of the world is an essential part of writing.  Everyone recognizes worldview when they see it, but few writers know how to label it or describe how it works. Because it’s such an essential part of creating well-rounded characters and unique perspectives that draw readers in, understanding how worldview works is an essential tool for most writers.  Let’s explore.

1. The Power of Literary Portrayals of Worldview

The power of well-wrought worldviews is evident in good writing.  If we read widely, we often encounter worldviews that reshape our own…like seeing arranged marriage from an Indian perspective in Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent,” or the view of a teen struggling to cope with a parent’s mental illness offered in Nolan’s Crazy,  or the inspiring look at a Moari girl breaking gender stereotypes to become a tribal leader in Ihimaera’s Whale Rider.  There are also inspiring stories that show us how exposure to new worldviews can completely change people’s preconceived notions about members of specific cultural groups as you see when a city-living bondsman travels to the “backwoods” to arrest two draft dodgers and learns to see “country people” with respect in Faulkner’s “The Tall Men” and the main character of Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck” goes head to head with stereotypes of cultural groups across the globe to explore how both stereotypes and anger towards those who hold them can narrow our worldview and hurt others.

In developing your understanding of worldview, I highly recommend learning how to adopt an “emic perspective” which means to view a culture as members of the culture would view it vs. looking at it from the outside of the culture.  Being able to look at culture from an emic perspective allows you to be more culturally understanding which is essential in a global society and in a community that values social justice, acceptance, and understanding. 

For instance, do you or someone sitting in the theater three rows behind you speak to the characters on screen? How is our response to this behavior shaped by your cultural upbringing? Are there roots in this tradition found in the call and response forms of communal communication that can be found in African American church services and many community traditions found in numerous indigenous cultures in Africa?

Before you judge any cultural tradition, go emic, or go home. 

Learning to "go emic" is also exceptionally useful when creating a character. When you explore how a character’s culture, life experiences, and current situation shape how z/s/he sees the world, then you can create a unique character perspective that allows you & your reader to see the world through a new perspective.  

You can learn more about going emic here.

If you do this for each character in a situation, then you can create genuine tension and depth that is common when people with unique worldviews interact. Showing characters navigate this tension can also offer insights on how to do just that for your readers. Had Reuven and Daniel understood each other’s worldview at the opening of Potok’s The Chosen it would have been a very short novel.

When crafting worldview, it’s useful to recognize the power of voice, imagery, desire, and action in shaping a character’s view of the world.

Let’s take a look at how a character’s voice can take shape:

2. Internal Voice

The internal voice of a character, often conveyed through a first-person perspective, is an excellent tool for expressing how a character sees the world, but you can also reveal it through a third person narrator’s description of a character’s life as Faulkner so aptly does in the opening of “A Rose for Emily.” In fact, it is Emily’s commitment to rigidly adhering to her view of her own world that drives her to kill in a fatally flawed attempt to maintain it.

With each narrative perspective, the elements of orality (or the impression that the narrator is speaking) allow readers to feel as if they are part of the story. And the unique ways that the narrator says things develops them as an individual and often leads readers to keep reading in order to see what they’re going to say next.  Nissa Bergen, a young southern character I’ve returned to three times in The Year of the Sawdust Man it’s sequels is quite comfortable saying things like, “Who’s going to give an owl’s hoot what we’re wearing?” and ”people call it romantic love like it’s something spectacular, but for me romance was a kind of insanity you never recover from” and readers get a strong sense of her voice and her view of the world rather quickly with lines like these.  Worldview in voice is best conveyed through character specific word choice, elements of orality, and the expression of opinions that allow us to see the world in new ways. 

You can learn more about voice by clicking here.

Speaking of “seeing,” let’s look at how worldview shapes imagery,

3. Image-ine That

Folks often ask me when I know it’s time to move from researching to writing a historical novel and my most typical answer is to say that I’m ready when I can describe a period as a person who lived in that era might see it.  I’m not a fan of historical fiction that applies modern worldviews because it offers an in accurate and misleading view of history.  And describing the era often requires having a firm control of the imagery used to describe the past.  A character raised a Nebraskan in the 1870s would have a distinct way of describing the accident that shattered his leg and reordered his life.  In Worth, Nate describes the accident saying, “The pain came with the rain. .. [and] yanked me out of the here and now to a place that stretched me out until I was thin enough to cover a prairie mile, each inch aching with a pain so sharp I would’ve died to make it stop.” To create effective character-specific imagery, you need to imagine their world down to the smallest detail. And it those details rendered in strong sensory language that make readers feel as if they’re really inside this character’s own world. Nate uses the prairie within his description because it’s the landscape of his daily life.  This description is also an example of what I like to call double duty details those character descriptions that develop more than one element of the story at a time such as the forward momentum of character development, plot, and setting within the description of Nate’s pain.

A famous writing exercise reportedly used since the first writing courses offered at Harvard in the 1890s is to describe a place like a barn from the perspective of one character –say the farmer, then to describe it from the perspective of other characters like the farmer’s spouse or a salesman from a nearby city with a flat tire or a foreign exchange student who has only seen barns in pictures.  Each person’s description should allow us to see a barn in a new way through the imagery that character employs to describe it.

A character draws from life experience to describe things so each character’s imagery should be specific to that person’s worldview—a city person can draw from a life with crowds, street noises, and place were they actually have shops dedicated to cheese and bread. On the other hand, a rural character may draw from time spent in open spaces, traveling for miles to reach a store, and a daily interaction with wildlife.  What you’ve lived and where you lived it will determine how you describe things. It can also intricately dictate what you want out of life.

4.  I Know Who I Am and I Know What I Want

It’s the grandmother’s desire to recapture her early life that leads the family horribly astray in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and it’s Jacob’s deep need to find a sense of acceptance that ultimately leads him into Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  The desires characters are shaped by the world they live in. So often, we ask of a character we meet in a story—why don’t they just---leave their cheating spouse, quit their dead-end job, move to a less repressive community—but we’re looking at their life from the perspective of our own.  As a writer, we need to see our characters from an “emic” perspective. Learning to adopt an emic point of view will not only make you a better writer, it will allow you to deepen your understanding of people from a variety of cultures. For instance, a character who grows up in a working-class neighborhood where no one s/z/he knows has ever gone to college, may not think it’s possible to  pursue a four-year degree.  Knowing the world your character comes from will shape the desires that emerge from this character or the desires you intend to explore may shape the world you place your character in.  For instance, we may think there’s nothing special about a child who wants to pursue a career in dance, but what if the child is African American and lives in 1950s California, or the child wants to dance ballet and he’s a boy from a working-class British family (Billy Elliot the Musical) or the child is deaf?

As you can see, the world a character lives in shapes so much of what they say, see, desire, and do, so let’s look at actions next. 

5. Acting Up

Anne Lammott says of character development, “Get to know your characters as well as you can, let there be something at stake, and let the chips fall where they may.” I’d have to agree. It’s really important to know your characters and the world they inhabit, but you should never try to control them.  Allow them to surprise you.  You may wonder how that could possibly happen if you’re the one creating them. The answer lies in writing from your subconscious rather than your conscious mind.  Your conscious mind remembers everything you know “off the top of your head” your name, you address, and though, some of us would like to forget, your age.  More importantly, it often knows all the negative things anyone ever said about your writing and all of the grammatical and craft rules you should be following (hyperbole added).  Your subconscious, on the other hand, knows nearly everything you ever learned from the name of the future rule of Russia who died play a target game with knives (Demitri) to the best place to get ice cream in your favorite city (Peppermint Park in NYC).  If you write from your subconscious, you literally go with the flow of your writing and you ignore your inner editor and write from within and you’re often as surprised as your readers by what your characters do next.

The actions of a character are often determined by the world they live in.  When someone in the novel Worth cuts the fence on their neighbor’s ranch, Nate and his parents are ready to rush out to herd the escaping cattle back into their enclosure, but their newly adopted NYC orphan, John Worth, is terrified of running onto the prairie in the pitch black because his city life never prepared him for such things. On the other hand, Nate, a country kid, is too scared to go out on the streets of Chicago at night because of his upbringing.  Or imagine what would’ve happened if Ms. Bennett and Mr. Darcy actually spoke their true feelings from the start in Pride and Prejudice.  Keep in mind that acting out of character and breaking out of the confines of social expectations is the stuff of legend in most stories, so let your characters breakaway from how they were raised, but make sure you do it in a convincing way.

Worldview may shape both writers and the characters they create, but we can also break out of those confines by learning other views of the world, so it’s important for all writers to read widely, learn new things, and explore new perspectives to offer their characters and their readers. We may not know the role of worldview in our writing consciously, but we recognize it when we see it. Hopefully, this article has offered you new tools that will allow you to develop this unique element of craft in innovative and compelling ways.

Go Emic & Put the World in Your Hands

CCO Creative Commons

 For a quick tutorial on developing a worldview in our writing, watch this video: