Thursday, January 28, 2010

Show v. Tell

AN Interruption of My STRUCTURE Posts for a Public Service Announcement Concerning “Show Don’t Tell.”

DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS ADVICE: “Show don’t tell.” When someone gives it to you (and they aren’t specific), give them the fisheye. I don’t really know what the fisheye is but I know it’s not good. Give it to them. This ridiculous advice is passed along like it’s one of the Ten Commandments. I’m hear to tell you, brothers and sisters, it is not. No novel only shows. Read any novel you like, and you will find plenty of show AND tell. So it is a useless piece of advice UNLESS you’re speaking about a specific part of a novel that should be showing more and telling less.

In scenes you do mostly want to show. You want to reveal your characters longings and fears and you want to show the reader, make the reader live them with your character. Showing involves the reader emotionally.

BUT there is information you will need to tell. You might summarize all kinds of things. Summary of what the character does for a living or where he always went on vacation or some thought he has about the nature of the universe or his love of bacon, all of these might be important but not important enough they need scenes. Or you might summarize something that happens that isn’t that important to the story but that adds needed information or explains some movement of the story. Anything that doesn’t require a scene might be summarized, might be told. Doing so emphasizes the importance of what is shown and keeps the novel moving.

So the really difficult part show and tell is deciding what’s important enough, essential enough to developing your character and story, to be shown. Show and tell is ultimately about this critical choice.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

structure 3

Structure 3
Okay, so you have your character and she wants something. Things get in the way of what she wants. You have a situation for your novel, which informs both the struggle of the character and some larger themes that the novel will explore.

Now let me be a little more specific about wants here. There is one or maybe more big things your character wants. But there will be lesser desires along the way, too, and these will influence the novel in a localized way.

Let’s say maybe your character wants to rule the world. That’s his big desire. So that’s what drives the novel and that’s the big thing he struggles with, but maybe as you’re revealing character in a flashback or an aspect of character in real time you discover he is or has been in love with a girl. Naturally, he wants her to love him back. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. A scene or some scenes might be about this failed relationship and his desire(love) for the girl might drive the scenes. The reader is persuaded to read on to see why the girl doesn't love him. This is one way to think about keeping the reader engaged chapter to chapter and scene-to-scene. You have localized desires sometimes carrying the show.

In terms of structure, these localized desires need to feed into the larger themes. If they do, then the localized action will add to the larger action. The reader should feel like it all fits together. If they do, then your manuscript will be working on several levels. At its most basic though, this creates tension through chapters and then adds in some way to the building tension. So in my simplictic scenario in the previous paragraph-- the girl our villain/hero was in love with who didn’t love him back and who he agonized over contributed to our heroes determination to rule the world AND she influenced his desire to punish everyone once he succeeds.

Structure/composition is ultimately about building localities that are linked together in a way that builds toward a final, larger union.

Or so I think today.

Monday, January 18, 2010

structure 2

Okay, so you start with what your characters want and what gets in the way of what your characters want. You make some decisions about telling your story in first person or third person, single narrator or multiple narrators etc…You make these decisions or come to these decisions. All of these will have an effect on the structure of your novel, of course

Another point to consider is the situation of your novel. Sometimes, again as you’re working through structuring your novel so that your story all hangs together, understanding the situation in your story can help you focus. It occurs to me that when we talk about structure we can mean many things. What I mean is the composition of the various elements of your novel, how they hang together in such a way that the novel feels whole. The structure of your novel, for my purposes, is that sense that it all fits together, which I think is essential. Of course it doesn’t have to fit together in a neat way. It can be messy etc…but the reader has to feel, at the end, that the story was leading them to that final moment. The situation of the novel is important to this goal of unity; I think theme often comes out of it.

For example, in my novel ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES, which by the way will be coming out in October of this year (notice how smooth I am with that promotion—oh, yeah), the world is conquered by aliens. It takes them, as my character laments, “…less time to conquer the world than it takes me to brush my teeth.” The aliens are telepaths and their mental powers are such that they’ve conquered the world without firing a shot. They kill most everyone on the planet but anyone who survives is made a slave. So, there’s my situation in this story. The focus of the story is completely different than it would be if the story were about an invasion as in, say, WAR OF THE WORLDS. A lot of themes about power (the might makes right attitude of the aliens who view humans as we view animals) and identity come out of this situation.

A situation might not be this dramatic of course. If you’re writing a realistic novel the situation might be more like my first novel, MY ROADTRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD, where I wrote about an adopted boy who is bothered by what he doesn’t know about his origins and decides to go in search of his birth mother and father. In this case, the situation is informed by his need to find out who he is. The novel is held together, loosely, by this search for identity.

I think if you can write the situation of your novel in a few sentences it will help you clarify structure by giving you some sense of the bigger picture in your story and what themes might come out of this bigger picture.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


We were talking a little about structure in my critique group the last time we met and it got me thinking about it. So what better way to start the new year on my writing blog (well, announcement of a six figure advance on my new book comes to mind, but…), than to write about structure, which is always a stumbling point for writers, old and new. So here come a few posts on various aspects of structure.

Structure 1

Most people can’t outline a novel. I’m with most people. Still, we need structure. So what determines structure? There’s the screenwriting approach to structure, which a lot of writers use. That is some writers use various screenwriting techniques for talking about novel writing structure (there are many writing books out there that explore this). One of these techniques is thinking about what your protagonist wants/needs and what gets in the way of that want or need. Some of these antagonists might be external and some might be internal. For example, Mr. Freeze gets in Batman’s way of saving Gotham(external), but Batman’s own inner demons cause him to do something that allows Mr. Freeze to trap him(internal). A protagonist’s desire and antagonists will certainly help you understand the story you want your characters to live. They will help you direct your story as you write it, too. It’s a good place to start when you’re trying to determine ways to push your narrative forward that will inform structure as well as develop other aspects of the story. (to be continued)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Different Every Time

Different every time. You can make generalizations about writing all day long. A lot of them are true. But what makes writing so fascinating and frustrating is the specificity of each story and the new problems each story presents.

Not to say you don’t learn. You do. You learn many things that will help you as you write—if you’re paying attention. You get help from teachers and other writers and wherever you can get it and you learn from reading etc.. —if you’re paying attention. But once you’re into a new story, no matter what you’ve learned, you have new situations that make the telling a struggle, a new struggle—every time. And you know what? I’m glad. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think I’d like to have it all figured out and just sit down and effortlessly write my new novel and after a few months write THE END at the bottom. Maybe I’d revise a few words here and there and try to work in "verisimilitude" since I seldom get to use that word. Off it would go. PERFECT, my agent would say. PERFECT, my editor would say. I think that I would love this "fiction" sometimes, this ease, (particularly when I’m hitting that wall again and again which happens in every manuscript sooner or later) but it’s not true. What makes writing worthy of a life-long pursuit is that it cannot be tamed. All but the most simple, formula-driven, fiction will force the writer, no matter how experienced he or she thinks he or she is, into unfamiliar worlds. It will challenge them in ways they can’t anticipate. That’s what makes it, in an admittedly twisted way, fun.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I’ve never written a manuscript I didn’t revise many, many times. I’ll look for different things at different times. I’ll have a list in mind. The “Do I have this? Do I have that? list. Some examples of questions I might ask myself to clarify and strengthen the manuscript are—

Does this scene have enough physical detail?
Does it have too much physical detail?
Is it clear what my characters want?
Is it clear what they don’t want?
Is it clear what’s in the way of what they want?
Is it clear what their strengths/weaknesses are?
Is there an arc to character?
What’s the main conflict? What’s the conflict in this scene?
What’s the big picture? What are some themes I’m after?
Is the voice clear throughout?
Where are the weak sentences?
Is there any place I got lazy?
Is each chapter pushing the story forward?
Is something at stake in the story?
Is the pacing right?

My point here is that there’s a time during revision where you have to be more analytical. The story is in place and the characters are real and your manuscript feels like all the elements are fitting together. To get to this evolutionary moment in the manuscript, you had to depend on your creative side: instinct and imagination and inspiration. But now you need the analytical side that evaluates. You have to distance yourself a little and look at the manuscript in a different way. Both sides are usually needed to make manuscripts successful.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

manuscript blindness

Revision, at first, is a joy. You get a second chance. A third. A fourth. You get all these chances to get it right. Life does not give you that. So, yeah, blessing.

But you get to the point when you can go no further. You wonder if you’ve gone far enough or too far. You can’t see it clearly anymore. You have to let the manuscript alone then and try to get other readers.

It’s just part of the process. You’re creating a world, characters in that world, a story they live in that world. It is hard work. It is hard to get right. You do the best you can, take the manuscript the furthest you can, and hope you get help from your critique group, friends, agent, editor, or whoever can offer help to point out things you’ve missed.

One thing that I have struggled with myself in revision is getting far enough away from the manuscript to be analytical about the whole thing. I’m pretty good at seeing problems with language, but I struggle at the big changes sometimes needed in character and sometimes plot. I think this is because it becomes real to me and because it’s real, fixed. How can I change reality? (Must be some kind of selective amnesia because, hello, I made the whole thing up.) This is only true after I’ve revised and revised the manuscript to that point of manuscript blindness, a place we all reach sooner or later. But once there, it gets harder to change. I think that is the point when you really have to ask yourself the tough questions. What does this scene accomplish? How does it push the narrative forward or deepen the reader’s understanding of character? You have to look at the worth of your scenes in terms of the whole. Do they all belong? If they do belong have you devoted the right amount of emphasis to each?

For me one of the most difficult things is narrative drive. I tend to focus more on language and character. My editor was very helpful in my last manuscript because she’s good with plot. She kept asking me this question: what does this scene add to the narrative? Now sometimes I’ll keep a scene in for other reasons, but asking yourself this question and trying to articulate the importance of each scene in terms of narrative can be very helpful to your skills as a storyteller and the story you’re trying to tell.