How to avoid painful feedback– losing track of time

Times are bad,’ he said, ‘children don’t obey their parents any more and everyone is writing a book.’ That was Cicero in 43BC. Everyone’s life is full of majestic stories but crafting them into a novel takes skill, perseverance and several rewrites that can tax the brain. That’s why writers need this feedback stage so much.

Feedbackers who give you clear, itemised lists of where you can improve your draft might make your teeth grind but at least they’re useful. It can be hard to know how to react when they are vague, unsure. They say they got lost, couldn’t finish it or, worst of all, they got bored. Bored?!! You think, how can they be bored, you’ve sweated blood over that draft …

Generalised dissatisfaction is often down to plot problems. In other words, does your story arc slacken and need a tweak or two? If you’re sure it’s not that, then it may be your use of time that’s confusing them. Let’s think about how you’re using memory and flashback.

MEMORY EXERCISES: 5 minutes each

  • Your main character is telling you in the 1st person about an important memory from early childhood, many years ago.
  • Your character is alone, quietly remembering the same event only 5 or 10 years after it happened. This can be in 1st or 3rd person, it’s up to you.
  • The day after this event happened, your character is telling someone else in your story about it.

This is about how memory alters with age and distance from the thing remembered. It also shows us that while we remember, however vividly, we stay in the present, aware of who and how we are now, while remembering.

IMG_2560

Manet, The Railway: 1873

Flashbacks are different.

First, let’s distinguish psychological flashbacks, where involuntary memories of traumatic experiences can invade a person’s present so vividly that it feels as if they are almost happening afresh, there and then.

Story-telling flashbacks are devices conjured by you, the writer, to bring the story from one of the story’s time zones to another for the reader’s benefit. They are like that bit of old movies where the screen goes wiggly and the characters are twenty years younger, until the screen goes wiggly again and they are back in the harsh, unhappy (or otherwise) present.

Those old films can teach us a thing or two, namely:

  • It’s important that readers are clear when you’re going into flashback and coming out again. They often read to relax with a mind full of work stress, children playing close by or with a busload of distracting people around them. If we are going to do something unrealistic like fiddle about in our use of time, we should guide them confidently.
  • The shorter your flashbacks, the more easily your reader will keep track of what’s going on. If a flashback goes on too long, you risk losing people. (Unless your whole book is in flashback and your reader knows that.)

FLASHBACK EXERCISES

  1. Your character is doing something mundane: cooking, driving, maybe daydreaming at work. What triggers the flashback? Hover there and concentrate on that moment. Then describe to yourself your character’s sensual awareness. Go through the five main senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch) and heat and cold, tension and relaxation, readiness or sleepiness and so on. Find one or two predominant ones – if your character is washing up, has he paused to feel the water swoosh around the hands? Noticed an aroma or something out of a window? Now take your character into the flashback and write it. Using that sensual experience, the swoosh of water again, come back out of the flashback and write the character’s reflections on it. Bring the reader securely back to the book’s present world.
  2. Now, what did you want that flashback to do? Explore this free writing, for yourself.

Lastly today, let’s try a version of our first memory exercise:

  • Your character, many years after the incident in a flashback, is telling you (the writer) about it for the first time, in the first person.
  • Explore on your page or screen how these exercises have shown you how memory and flashback differ. Both can be exciting, heart-breaking, immediate in their different ways – what do they have to offer in their different ways?

Next week we will start looking at how to send your novel out and get it published. Exciting!

Happy writing.

 

Dialogue – how to keep it real

What does dialogue do for your novel or story?

  • It brings your reader right into the action in what feels like real time. It’s the powerful essence of ‘Show, not Tell’.
  • It’s a direct route into character. The moment we begin to speak, we reveal who we are, where we come from, our age, viewpoint and a thousand other things.
  • Readers love to work out for themselves if they trust characters or not – are they truthful? – and how deeply characters know themselves.
  • You (as writer) can show how different your characters are in different contexts. The people we are at work are not the same as who we are with mum or an old friend. IMG_2214The play La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler (David Hare’s stage version is The Blue Room) exposes how the way we all behave and speak depends on the company we are in: a Duke’s behaviour in bed with a servant girl is not the same as when he is with his wife, for example.
  • Which means that dialogue is a quick route into showing your characters being as inconsistent as we all are. This is not the same as lying, it’s just that we are all multitudes inside. If stakes are rising and we are tested beyond our usual limits, our presentable mask slips. This is where you can bring out your character’s vulnerabilities and hook your readers emotionally more than ever.
  • Dialogue makes your page more attractive to read. One of the first things we learn in journalism school is that the more ‘white space’ there is around your words, the more likely people (any people) are to stay and read it. Good dialogue has plenty of white space.
  • Better than anything else, dialogue can raise questions as well as answer them. You can use it to expose longings and ambitions, hint at secrets.
  • You can switch from comedy to tragedy relatively easily, as we do in real life.
  • Dialogue breaks up passages of description, varies the texture.

How close is written dialogue to real conversation?

In some writing classes, you’ll be asked to eavesdrop on chatting strangers and record what you hear. That’s a time-consuming way of discovering that we all repeat ourselves a lot, have verbal habits like ‘You know’ or ‘Yeh yeh’, say the same thing several times in other ways, interrupt each other and do not always reply to what the other says as if it’s a game of ping pong. Eavesdropping is fun, and all writers do it. Be careful though: if strangers find out what you’re up to, they might not be best pleased.

The biggest lesson you will learn from your recording exercise is that dialogue needs editing. A lot of editing.

If you’re on a roll with a first draft, don’t let thoughts of editing get too much in your way. The only rule of first drafts is to keep writing and at all costs finish, so best of luck. We’ll leave you to it.

If you are ready to take things further, let’s look at how we make dialogue on the page feel real while doing the work we want it to do in terms of character and plot.

DIALOGUE & CHARACTER

What is revealed in the way we speak?

  • Age, personality, birth place and origin, economic status, education, world view.
  • Character traits you have been working on, such as the most important wound in your characters’ lives or what they passionately want and need above all else.
  • Relationships in our lives come through how we speak. Whether people are happy at home or have established religious faith is usually obvious from their conversation.
  • Fears, ambitions and dreams creep in too.
  • Any verbal tics you have given them (like Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’).

Each character also arrives in every scene with:

  • Context (has she slept badly, has he just been sacked, have they got money worries etc)
  • Mood (happy/sad/angry/fed up etc).
  • Agenda: what is each character looking for? We are all always looking for something from every encounter we have with others, whether we are aware of it or not. If a journalist is trying to persuade someone to be interviewed or to divulge a secret, that’s an obvious agenda. It can be more subtle: when you come home at the end of a day’s work and call ‘Hallo’, is there anything you want from that moment? Dramatic conflict (the essence of all stories) comes from the clash between our agendas and what actually happens. Don’t be too easy on your characters and give them what they want too soon.

EXERCISE 1

Imagine you’re in a park and see two people with a baby buggy. You move so close, you can hear what they say …

For five minutes, write their dialogue, showing as much about each character and their relationship as you can. Don’t bother with too many attributions (he said, she said, he muttered, she explained) – let rip and enjoy it.

EXERCISE 2

Psychologists have discovered that in ordinary conversation, we rarely say more than 7 to 10 words at a time. In plays and soap operas, it can be even less.

Re-write the first exercise, keeping each line to 7 words or less. Be strict with yourself about the word count.

Once your scene is flowing, try letting the reader know that there’s something that one is hiding from the other.

EXERCISE 3

People move, think and feel while they speak too. Rewrite Exercise 2 with brief actions, thoughts and feelings between the lines of dialogue. Now you have prose fiction as opposed to a radio script!

Two main problems crop up when we write dialogue in first drafts.

First is writing a radio script by accident. You’re deep at your page or screen with the action around you, rolling nicely to the page. Your characters are so present with you that you’re soaked in what they’re saying and their words to take over. This is exciting and marvellous and is one of the great ways to produce a first draft. But if you look back later and find that for page after page, you have almost nothing but dialogue – it’s time to edit.

The second is allowing your characters to fall into lengthy speeches.

There are times when one person in a conversation gets to hold forth, when one is a teacher or in some other position of authority, for example, or one has a problem to unfold. But most conversation is an exchange of short lines.

The good news is that the short stuff engages readers more easily, feels more real and, in the right scene, can raise the stakes for you all by itself by bringing up the pace.

EXERCISE 4

  • Invent a scene or choose one from your work in progress.
  • Sketch out the mood, context, agenda for each character before you start.
  • Write your scene giving your characters no more than 7 words each for at least 100 words.
  • Put a single line of action (she twisted her wedding ring, he held his breath) or thought or feeling between each line.
  • Be amazed at how much has been revealed in those few words, and how actively it all reads.
  • Notice what your characters have not said, and the power of that. Renoir, 1879 IMG_2210
  • Keep writing, and when the scene needs it, allow a longer speech to one of your characters.

See how the change of pace makes the whole scene work better for you? The seven-word exercise can feel really hard and unreasonable but it’s one of the most valuable fiction-writing skills there is. If you do it often, it will soon feel natural and your dialogue will improve no end.

Happy writing!

 

 

How to lay out your dialogue

The three biggest tools in a writer’s box of crafts are through-line, point of view, and training ourselves to show our story in action rather than telling it at a remove. One of the easiest ways to bring your reader up close to your story is to show your characters talking to each other. Readers feel as if they are right there in the conversation themselves.

IMG_2200

Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876

So, how do we write dialogue, edit it, present it, use it best? Let’s start at the beginning, with how we lay it out.

EXERCISE

Choose a couple of characters; they can be your own, from somebody else’s novel or just make them up for today, it doesn’t matter. Call them by the initials of their first names (such as A and B) and scribble lightly, fast an exchange they might have on a Sunday morning.

Don’t sweat too much about what they’re saying, though if you’re on a roll and produce something useful for your draft, that’s great. What we’re concerned with today is how we lay those words out.

Each publisher has its own house style and will expect you to have had a close look at theirs before you submit your draft to them. This will, I’m afraid, take time and care. Consistency and an eye for detail are everything.

Practices differ around the world but the same questions arise everywhere. Let’s start with the most usual UK practice (only because it’s where I live) and notice the sort of wrinkles and subtleties that come up.

Dialogue layout

In the UK, our characters’ spoken words are usually surrounded by single inverted commas or quotations marks:

‘How do I lay this table?’ he asked.

Elsewhere in the world it can be double quotation marks, or none at all, just a dash to lead in the spoken words.

If your character is quoting something within a spoken sentence, we in the UK use double quotes for that:

‘You’re useless. Your mother said the self-same thing on the phone yesterday. “He’s useless,” she said. Those were her very words.’

All punctuation belonging to the spoken words comes inside the quotation marks, nice and cosy.

‘When’s she coming? Did you say – I heard you say, didn’t I?  – she’s coming at two?’

And try not to forget the closing quotation mark, it’s easily done.

If there’s an attribution like ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ after the spoken words, then a comma comes after the spoken words, inside the final inverted comma, and ‘he said’ comes in lower case as part of the same sentence:

‘I really wish we could just run away, now,’ he said.

Even if what he said was a full sentence, as above.

If you’ve got an attribution other than ‘he/she said’, it’s the same:

‘Well, I never invited her!’ she shouted.

If the attribution (‘he/she said’) starts with someone’s name, then the capital letter is used, as usual.

‘I know, darling. Calm down,’ Paul said.

And when the character keeps speaking after that attribution, you can keep going with a capital or lower case letter, depending on whether the speech is a new sentence or not:

‘You used to love me,’ Alison cried. ‘At least I thought so, until now …’

 

As above, if there is a new sentence to come, then the attribution ends with a full stop. We know that the new piece of speech (beginning ‘At least I thought so …) is Alison’s because it’s on the same line as her previous words.

(If Alison had run this into a single sentence, it would look like this:

‘You used to love me,’ Alison cried, ‘or I thought so, until now …’)

Paul took her hand in his and said, ‘Why do you doubt me, darling, when I’ve given you all this?’ Which could equally be written:

Paul took her hand in his and said:

‘Why do you doubt me, darling’ etc.

Again, if Alison continues her sentence after her attribution, the first comma is inside the quotation marks and her new speech starts lower case, as it would if the attribution wasn’t there.

‘You make me sick,’ she sobbed, drawing her hand away, ‘especially when you think you can get around me like this.’

If the attribution comes before the spoken words, then it ends with a comma and the spoken sentence starts with the capital it would have if it were standing on its own:

Paul shouted, ‘My mother’s due any minute and I don’t want to see her any more than you do but we’ve got no choice. Now clean yourself up and get into that kitchen!’

‘Don’t you yell at me like that!’

Yes, quite often you don’t have to tell the reader who is speaking. In fact, if your character’s voice is right, the reader will know just from verbal inflections, accent and personality who is saying what. You can also indicate who is speaking by putting a character’s actions in the same line:

‘I’m not yelling at you.’ Paul pulled his sweater down and looked out of the window. He saw two pigeons fussing together on the lower branches of his monkey puzzle tree. A stab of envy of their simple joy ate into his heart. ‘I would never yell at you, my sweet, I’ve loved you all my life.’

If you have a brief bit of description interrupting someone’s spoken words, you can put it inside dashes outside the quotation marks like this:

‘You haven’t known me all your life’ – a car horn blared outside on the gravel – ‘and you know precious little about me now. I do have a choice actually, and I’m making it. I’m off!’

Indents, or a new paragraph, make it clear that there’s a change of speaker:

‘Please don’t go, darling, not now.’

‘Not when I’m supposed to be cooking, you mean?’

‘I mean not when we’ve been happy for so long!’

‘You call this happy?’

‘But how could I cope without you?’

Whether you use indents or paragraphs for speech is a matter of house style and your publisher will tell you what they want.

If someone is indulging in a monologue that goes on for more than one paragraph, each subsequent paragraph of the speech opens with an inverted comma although the previous one remains open. This is where it can be especially easy to forget to close your final speech marks and the reader thinks that your next piece of description is being said:

Paul ignored a prolonged honk from the car on the gravel outside and took a bottle from the fridge. He filled two glasses with ice and covered the cubes with dark rum. ‘Well, my darling, I’ll miss you.’ He handed one glass to Alison. ‘I remember the first time I caught sight of you, during lectures in the first year, with your hair in plaits and those yellow cycle clips over your brown jeans, and I thought, that’s the prettiest girl I’ll ever see in my life.

 ‘I was right too. I’ve never wanted anybody else, Alison. Never even fancied anyone else. But if you want to go, I can’t stop you. I’ll always have Mother … and rum.’

He lifted his glass in salute as Alison downed hers and slammed the door behind her without another word.  

Have a look at a wide selection of the books around you, comparing the different ways publishers do it. As always, have fun, and remember the times when conversation can be silent.

IMG_2199

Klimt’s The Kiss, 1907/8

Happy writing. More about dialogue next week!

What does 3rd person mean? Why does it matter?

Knowing ‘whose head we are in’ from page to page, chapter to chapter, is a central skill in writing fiction. Keeping closely inside that character’s heart and mind is key to keeping your readers with you. (This is Point of View, made easy with exercises and tips, yesterday.)

Writing in the first, second or third person, on the other hand, is a stylistic choice for you as author.

Sometimes your publisher or agent will ask you to alter from 1st to 3rd person (or vice versa) because they think it will improve the storytelling. Or maybe your own gut feeling will guide you into a change, to see if it might work better. It’s worth playing with it to see where you’re comfortable for this story and these characters.

Which ‘person’ is which?

EXERCISE

In a handful of lines, describe a car crash involving one of your favourite characters. Then:

·       Invite that character soon after the event to come to you for a scribble-chat to tell you about it as if you’re best friends. Start with something like, ‘I don’t know why it happened but …’

·       You’re a paramedic telling a colleague about the crash in the hospital just afterwards.

·       Write a police report of the same incident.

·       Describe the crash in the past tense as if you are a god-like story-teller who watched it all from above: he did this, she did that.

·       A close friend is sitting beside a patient in hospital in a coma. Write what the friend says as s/he talks to the silent patient recounting what happened at the scene of the accident, e.g.: ‘You had the kids in the back and everything and then this lunatic, I don’t know how you survived it, love, I really don’t.’

The first, writing as ‘I’ – that’s first person. So is the paramedic.

The police report is in the third person, using s/he.

Your omniscient narrator is third person too, either keeping a certain distance from events or zooming in for a closer encounter with minds and hearts.

The friend talking to the patient is using you, the second person.

1st = I, we, me, us.

2nd = you.

3rd = he, she, her, him, it, they, them.

Choose your approach and stick with it throughout your draft, knowing you can change the tilt of it later. Clarity and consistency keep your readers with you.

THIRD PERSON – advantages

·       We’re all used to third person storytelling. Most books do it this way.

·       It combines distance with being able to get in close. Both are useful.

·       An authorial voice can be useful too, either impersonal or another character.

Third person – disadvantage

·       A bit dull and predictable sometimes? A sense of distance from the heart of things?

EXERCISE

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy- chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

This is the opening of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865). Wonderful Alice. You’ll have noticed that it’s written in the third person, yet we’re right in among Alice’s dreamy thoughts, using she and Alice’s name as subject.

Try writing it again changing ‘Alice’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ (3rd person) to ‘I’ and ‘me’ (1st person).

How does that feel? Try reading both versions aloud to see what you decide about the difference in effect. This is not about exam answers. Trying it all on for size is what’s important.

Here is the opening of The Sign of Four written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1890. This time try rewriting it, deleting ‘I’ (1st person) each time and replacing it with ‘Watson’, ‘he’ or ‘him’ (3rd):

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel- piece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.

What do you notice this time? Does using first person makes it easier to distinguish the two men in a reader’s mind? What else feels different?

 

IMG_1829

SECOND PERSON (you) is rare because it’s tricky to pull off in a full-length novel. Advantages are the jolt of the unusual and, up to a point, it can feel friendly and conversational. Disadvantages are that it can feel preachy. It’s better when it has a context like a letter or a speech in court.

FIRST PERSON narrative has a long tradition including Moby Dick (‘Call me Ishmael’), Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. Here are the famous opening lines of Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

Dickens was very fond of it too.

First person – advantages:

·       Your character’s voice – tone, accent and content – is clear without being rationed to sections of dialogue.

·       Readers feel can feel as if the character is confiding in them.

·       Internal uncertainty comes easily. Here is George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, written in 1936. It is not for the squeamish but displays beautifully how you can write someone working something through in their thoughts.

·       If you’re used to scribble-chats with your characters, you’ll find first person accounts easy.

·       Your ‘I’ can be honest (like Holmes’s friend Watson) or an unreliable narrator who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out.

·       Writing in the ‘I’ of your character keeps you and your own personal agenda out of the way. Usually a good thing for the flow of your writing and the result.

First person – disadvantages:

·       Your character needs to be someone the reader wants to be with for a whole book.

·       While a confiding tone is easy, distance is more difficult to achieve.   IMG_0589EXERCISE

It’s time to reach for your bookshelf, online or otherwise, and choose one of your favourite novels:

·       Notice first, through two or three chapters, ‘whose head are we in?’

·       Is it from a single viewpoint or many?

·       Whose story is it? By that, I mean who has the most crucial place in the story arc? Some characters are fascinating but they come in briefly as catalysts, that’s not what I mean. Who is the character who is most challenged and developed, who is it really about?

·       Is the story told from inside that person’s head and heart? If no, why do you think not? If yes, what does that give the reader?

·       Finally, does the author use the first, second or third person to tell the story? Why do you think that’s what the author chose? Try to rewrite some of it in another person and see how it feels. Now try the same with a piece of your own draft.

As I said, it’s not about exam answers. It’s about what seasons the pot best. It’s your pot and your decision.

Happy writing!

Show and tell? What’s the difference?

In many writing courses, you will be told firmly to ‘show, not tell’. But we’re telling stories, aren’t we? What’s wrong with ‘Once upon a time in a land far away lived a king who had three daughters’?

Thanks to cinema and television, our readers are more used than ever before to being shown a story as it unfolds. Yet even among the relentless action of soaps and ‘reality’ shows, you will find scenes where characters swap stories from the past. They tell each other things.

Both showing and telling have their uses. So, what is the difference between the two?

 Great Expectations

Let’s look at the first page of Dickens’ masterpiece:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Dickens starts by introducing us to his main character who tells us in the first person how he’s known by his childhood name. It’s endearing; Dickens knew it would be.

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith.

So poor old Pip’s father has died. In Pip’s voice, Dickens develops the lad’s tragic history:

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle — I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers- pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.

What beautiful detail. Just where it’s needed. Dickens even brings in an odd little smile about his five little brothers’ headstones. It feels as if it just fell from the pen – but nothing is wasted, it is all precise.

Then, after just two vivid paragraphs of background, Pip draws us into the first, terrifying slice of action. Look how carefully Dickens places us in the churchyard, beside ‘the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry’:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

Take a moment to look at how much detail Dickens has given us so far, and how much he has not given. There is exactly as much as we need to see and feel the place and the small boy in it. Now to raise the stakes sky high:

Hold your noise,’ cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. `Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’

2016-07-15 15.12.33Dickens is accused of verbosity but he’s anything but wordy here. There is no mawkish simile about ghosts ‘as a man started up from among the graves’ – the man is all too real. Dickens hurtles on with no time for verbs:

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

`O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,’ I pleaded in terror. `Pray don’t do it, sir.’

The perfect mix of show and tell. If the author or a character is explaining something, we are in ‘tell’ country. If we are in the midst of action and dialogue, we are being shown.

 Wind in the Willows

In chapter 8 of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad is in gaol, chatting with the gaoler’s daughter who has a plan for his escape.

First, as you read this, notice how wonderfully lively this scene is. How does Grahame do that, when the action could have been dismissed in a couple of sentences?

Second, take a moment to mark where you find ‘show’ in it, and where it becomes ‘tell’:

One morning the girl was very thoughtful, and answered at random, and did not seem to Toad to be paying proper attention to his witty sayings and sparkling comments.

“Toad,” she said presently, “just listen, please. I have an aunt who is a washerwoman.”

“There, there,” said Toad, graciously and affably, “never mind; think no more about it. I have several aunts who ought to be washerwomen.”

“Do be quiet a minute, Toad,” said the girl. “You talk too much, that’s your chief fault, and I’m trying to think, and you hurt my head. As I said, I have an aunt who is a washerwoman; she does the washing for all the prisoners in this castle—we try to keep any paying business of that sort in the family, you understand. She takes out the washing on Monday morning, and brings it in on Friday evening. This is a Thursday. Now, this is what occurs to me: you’re very rich—at least you’re always telling me so—and she’s very poor. A few pounds wouldn’t make any difference to you, and it would mean a lot to her. Now, I think if she were properly approached—squared, I believe is the word you animals use—you could come to some arrangement by which she would let you have her dress and bonnet and so on, and you could escape from the castle as the official washerwoman. You’re very alike in many respects—particularly about the figure.”

“We’re not,” said the Toad in a huff. “I have a very elegant figure—for what I am.”

“So has my aunt,” replied the girl, “for what she is. But have it your own way. You horrid, proud, ungrateful animal, when I’m sorry for you, and trying to help you!”

“Yes, yes, that’s all right; thank you very much indeed,” said the Toad hurriedly. “But look here! You wouldn’t surely have Mr Toad, of Toad Hall, going about the country disguised as a washerwoman!”

“Then you can stop here as a Toad,” replied the girl with much spirit. “I suppose you want to go off in a coach-and-four!”

Honest Toad was always ready to admit himself in the wrong. “You are a good, kind, clever girl,” he said, “and I am indeed a proud and a stupid toad. Introduce me to your worthy aunt, if you will be so kind, and I have no doubt that the excellent lady and I will be able to arrange terms satisfactory to both parties.”

Next evening the girl ushered her aunt into Toad’s cell, bearing his week’s washing pinned up in a towel. The old lady had been prepared beforehand for the interview, and the sight of certain gold sovereigns that Toad had thoughtfully placed on the table in full view practically completed the matter and left little further to discuss. In return for his cash, Toad received a cotton print gown, an apron, a shawl, and a rusty black bonnet; the only stipulation the old lady made being that she should be gagged and bound and dumped down in a corner. By this not very convincing artifice, she explained, aided by picturesque fiction which she could supply herself, she hoped to retain her situation, in spite of the suspicious appearance of things.

Toad was delighted with the suggestion. It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and with his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished; and he readily helped the gaoler’s daughter to make her aunt appear as much as possible the victim of circumstances over which she had no control.

“Now it’s your turn, Toad,” said the girl. “Take off that coat and waistcoat of yours; you’re fat enough as it is.”

Shaking with laughter, she proceeded to “hook-and-eye” him into the cotton print gown, arranged the shawl with a professional fold, and tied the strings of the rusty bonnet under his chin.

I’m shaking with laughter too!

It’s all about telling stories in the most engaging way possible. What engages our readers most is vivid characters, their thoughts, feelings, actions, their hopes and dreams.

So when is telling good and when is it better to show? Both have their uses…

How to ‘show’?

  • Dialogue. The surrounding text can be present or past tense – we will look at that in another post soon – and as each character speaks, we learn about that character as well as what is or is not going on. Please do not forget to bring in how they move as well; sometimes this can contradict their words.
  • Action. The plainer your action language, especially your verbs, the stronger your action will be. Strip away as many adjectives and adverbs as you can, they just hold things up, and try not to forget ambience as well as action.
  • Thoughts and unspoken feelings. Cinema, television and theatre use monologue as a diversion from the action to show us a character’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Where Hamlet comes to the front of the stage to say ‘To be or not to be’, for example, the audience is entrusted with emotions he cannot share with anyone else. But visual media tend to use dramatic monologues sparingly and actors wrestle with ways to show their audience what they think and feel. For us fiction writers, those unexpressed inner workings, maybe unexpressed even to the characters themselves, are our special territory and whole books can be written in it. This is why fiction gives such unique depth of empathy with characters, and has been credited with changing societies.

 When is it better to TELL?

First of all, beware of the info-dump.

In your character work you will have discovered where your character was born, went to school, first fell in love, was first rejected or sacked, and how he or she feels about it all. Before Dickens wrote his first page of Great Expectations, he will have known all that too. Did he set down to tell us at length, or did he bring us as quickly as possible into one of the most terrifying scenes ever written? Agents can tell beginners by the slabs of casual biography dropped into their sample pages, known as info-dumps.

Train yourself to spot an info-dump – a boring slab of ‘tell’ – and learn to spin it, as Dickens did, in engaging ways. There. That’s all there is to it.

How can ‘tell’ serve our story?

Use it above all to vary your pace, tone and the rhythm of your story.

  • It can bring some distance after a heated scene or crisis.
  • A quiet moment, in a garden for example, between crises can raise poignancy, especially if your character is not likely to survive (for example, Jesus’s time alone in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion).
  • You can slow down the action to stretch a scene and deliberately raise stakes.
  • You can use it for you as author or for a character to comment ironically on what has just been, or to raise a question that will not be answered yet.
  • It can be a handy way to carry your story in a few lines across time, geography or culture.

The best description uses those few precise details that bring us there, not forgetting our five-plus senses.

Proportions of show and tell?

Many writers begin by thinking that the main job is telling, with intervals of showing. If anything, it’s the other way around.

Yes, you will have plenty of classic books on your shelves and e-reader that do it that way but our readers today have often been educated by cinema and television screens and this means two things. Not only do they expect to be in the middle of a story as it unfolds  – a trick incidentally as old as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – but they do not need as much detail as previous generations did. They like to guess. Credit your reader with being a few steps ahead of you and you will rarely be wrong.

So it’s show and tell, with a strong emphasis on show, being aware of both and the jobs they can do to engage your readers to the maximum.

 EXERCISE

Two people are arguing in a car park. They get into the same car which moves off.

  1. You are one of the two people. Tell us what is going on in the present tense as it’s happening, in the first person with dialogue and action.
  2. You are a reporter watching from a distance, not involved. Write your report in the third person, after the event so past tense, for your local newspaper.
  3. Write the same scene in dialogue only.
  4. Using your text from 3, add one sentence of action between each line of dialogue, eg: ‘A yawns, looks at his mobile’, ‘B pulls her skirt down over her knees’. Action only please, no description or thoughts. See how much you can convey in those lines of action about where and who they are, eg: ‘A kicks the tarmac’.

What do you notice? What difference does it make to your writing to be among the dialogue and action? How do you bring feelings into play? How does your balance of show and tell affect the stakes?

There are no right or wrong answers here; it’s a matter of being aware of what you’re after and how you bring it about. The distant observer can throw up questions that raise the stakes just as effectively as telling the story from the point of view of a terrified child in the back seat of the car.

 EXERCISES – 5 MINUTES EACH

Finally, in just two or three paragraphs each, without ever stating the obvious, describe all or any of the following. It’s up to you how you show or tell:

Harry was thrilled to be going on a date for the first time in ages.

If she had to put up with one more takeaway, she’d scream.

Sam stood outside the boss’s office shaking with fear.

Ellie hadn’t expected him to look so ill.

Any minute now she was going to grab his phone and throw it out the window.

The bedroom was a shambles.

The last thing she wanted was show how frightened she was.

It was a dark & stormy night…

 

A note to myregular readers of this blog,

I did promise to write today about the great epic novels of the past and present from The Iliad to Harry Potter but I’ve had an exceptionally busy week with no time for the extensive reading that post needs. Next week, I hope! Today in the mean time, as they used to say on Blue Peter, is one I made earlier. Not long ago I met a radio and television celebrity who is working with an editor on a novel. What was the advice coming his way, time and time again? Show, not tell. 

Happy writing – more next week!

Old friends

‘You can’t make old friends’, said the late Christopher Hitchens. Romantic love can come and go but a really solid friendship year after year, there’s no treasure like it.

Whenever we’re writing fiction, there’s pressure to edit out everything that doesn’t propel the story along, so a main character can have just a friend or two, or none. In reality, most of us gather friends through every phase of our lives.

IMG_0863

SHORTCUT

You can save first draft time, once you know your characters well, if you give some thought to what binds friends together. Stand back from your main story and plot their friendship over the years like a love story: how do they meet, what obstacles does their relationship face, how do they stay together, or not? In the usual scribble-chat way, ask each of them separately to answer these questions for you, taking as long as they like:

  • How did they meet?
  • How are they together when they’ve only known each other a short time?
  • What do they have in common at the start?
  • How does their warmth develop?
  • What is in it for each of them?
  • Where are the tests in their bond? What difficulties have they recovered from, or not?
  • How do they work things through together?
  • How are they when they’ve known each other ten or more years?
  • What secrets do they have from each other?
  • What do other people think of them and their friendship?

Not all of this needs to go into your draft but you may well discover useful things that give you the nuance and plausibility you’re after. Old friends’ answers don’t necessarily match of course.

Some of the most memorable stories have friendship at their centre, dating right back to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, written around 2000 BCE. It’s often opposites who attract, not just because it makes the story bubble but because it happens in life. That’s why we believe Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are great mates, Horatio and Hamlet, Frodo and Sam, Ratty and Mole. Jane Austen uses the friendship between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas brilliantly to point up the economic crises they both face in Pride and Prejudice, and solve differently. Jane Eyre and Helen Burns bring Bronte’s particular palette to Jane’s story from its outset.

My favourite of all is the exquisitely written friendship between Jack Aubry and Stephen Maturin in the Master and Commander series, that survies war, poverty and wealth, even their being in love with the same woman.

What are the things to avoid whenever we’re writing close friends?

  • No exposition please or dumps of backstory where they tell one another things they already know. Sometimes we do this with each other as a rove down memory lane but swathes of dialogue where they tell each other how they met and who their girlfriends are? Just delete it, your readers will catch up.
  • Friends have familiar or code words that mean more to the two of them than to anyone else. Watson understands who Holmes means when he refers to ‘the Woman’, for example.
  • They are likely to have usual places where they eat, drink, laugh, maybe described with a code or nickname.

IMG_0619

Friendship doesn’t always go well of course. Banquo could tell you that, after his old friend Macbeth has him and his son Fleance killed. Shakespeare allows Banquo some wonderful supernatural – or is it psychological? – revenge.

Sometimes friendlessness is the point: Ralph is a decent soul in Golding’s Lord of the Flies so his isolation in the face of appalling bullying is all the more heart-wrenching.

We writers are always snappers up of life’s unconsidered trifles so next time you’re with your dearest friends, take a close look at how you are together. What are the traces of your friendship that anybody can see from across a room? Where are your depths, how the two of you hide them from the world? I’m not suggesting for a second that you betray your friends, just study how you are together. Your fictional friends will benefit.

The hillside exercise

This writing lark can feel like an uphill slog going nowhere. Especially at this time of year, when our writing time can melt away in the festivities and well-meaning loved ones ask us difficult questions like ‘How’s the writing going?’ Not all of us can report a new publishing contract, launch or shortlisting for a prize. So now and again it does us good to sit and rest, look back and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come.

The last time I was among my favourite writing friends, my hillside exercise was this:

2007-06-01 12.26.10I’m up the Mournes, County Down on a clear June day, a bit of bite in the air, pleasure in the body as my boots meet the grass, contentment in being here doing what I’m doing.

There have been dreadful times, toiling hard in squalls on the lower slopes with hailstones driving hard into my back, plastering my hair wet to my face, freezing the rims of my ears. There have been steep patches where the only way I could get anywhere was to narrow my eyes to the square metre in front of me and keep plodding, silent, alone.

People have joined me from time to time – Anji, my first proper agent (then at AP Watt), and Dennis my poetry publisher being my kindest and most lasting champions.

I remember a brush of brief success when a Guardian reviewer asked my publisher to put my novel up for the Guardian First Novel prize. But it wasn’t my first novel – my children’s novel edged to publication first – so she couldn’t, and now that experience feels like a brush from an angel’s wing, a dreamt blessing from another world. But there have been breaks in the clouds, widening patches of clear blue on leaden days, when a contract for publication of my children’s novel arrived eighteen months after submission with no chit chat or connection in between. And when Dennis Greig of Lapwing accepted my submission of poems, with incredible speed and enthusiasm, in 2010.

Lately, the going is grassy, warm, brighter. A few wee flowers cheer me. Now and again I even sing to myself as my palms press strength down through my knees into my boots. The higher I climb, the higher the sky rises. The air is fine and free. It’s time to turn around and glance back.

The tough bits of the climb are invisible. No shale and scree meet the eye at all, just stretches of green, the odd boulder and a surprisingly clear, neat path. Cows in fields below are smudges of a sharpened pencil. Cars are glints in the granite. My climb, my effort in getting here, where is all that? Gusts in the heather, rufflings in clouds.

On a peak not far away, there’s a happy launch for my next book of poetry.

Rosie Scenic 1

The ground dips between here and there, masked by whins. I can’t see what the going is like. Further off, steep, sharp, dignified, is a beautiful granite summit garlanded by pale mist. Its slopes are white-grey, luminous in the sunlight, and I’ll need all my skills to climb it – publication of my non-fiction book-in-progress.

I’m up off this boulder now, ready to keep at the climb. Happy with the privilege of being here, in love with this writing world.

I wish you joy in your writing climb too, wherever it takes you.

Love and many thanks to my late father, RR Johnston, for these photographs. He adored and climbed the Mourne mountains all his life.