Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Write Wednesday: What to Leave Out

Welcome back to Write Wednesday!

I've been thinking about some specific writing advice lately as I prepare to edit my NaNoWriMo from last fall.  Have you ever heard the phrase, "Show, don't tell"?  I find it frustrating.

First of all, what precisely does it mean?  Does it mean to *only* show and *never* tell?  Show what?  Tell what?

This phrase became clearer to me while reading the Chaos Walking trilogy (...I might not ever shut up about this is that great).  In it, the characters don't "smile fondly" or "laugh cheerily" or "yell angrily".  (Don't pepper your manuscripts with adverbs.  Please.  As a reader, I find it irritating.)  Although I'm guilty of including "-ly" words too much, as well.  How else are you supposed to let the reader know what's going on?

In The Chaos Walking Trilogy, Patrick Ness doesn't take time to explain every detail of the characters' feelings.  He brings the readers' imaginations into the story and they create a picture themselves, which I think is brilliant.

Todd may yell, and depending on the dialogue that's happened before, we know whether it's from surprise or anger.  Being able to write without putting in every excruciating detail about the character's facial expressions or by-the-second emotion is freeing.  It allows you to concentrate on the action and dialogue, which will help the reader imagine what is going on for themselves.  It's more intimate, in a way.

I think every time you include a "she smiled cheerfully" the reader stops and has to imagine that detail before going on, and it's going to get tedious.  They might even put the book down if she smiles cheerfully too much (I almost did that with a book once).

So, instead of saying "he reacted angrily," show what he did.  How did he react?  Did he punch someone?  Did he throw a bottle that shattered on the wall?  Did he sock someone in the nose?  Did he tackle the person who pushed him to react?  If we set up the scene by having two characters engage in a bit of dialogue, the later action will make sense.   Readers aren't dumb.  We can grasp more than you think we can.  We can track with you, even when you don't include a description that lets us know the character is frowning petulantly.

 Another thought: I think a person who writes too many -ly words is trying to control the story.  Every tiny little detail.  Nothing is left up to the reader's imagination, and when that happens, stories die.  Stories are fluid, they mean different things to different people, and no matter how hard you try to make sure nothing is left to the end, stories are meant to live on their own.  They become real, living things that impact people for hundreds of years (hopefully).  Sometimes we control it without meaning to or realizing it, and sometimes people are just control freaks (but those stories sometimes break down and rust because the author has created a mechanical thing, not a living one).

I think more authors are the "use-adverbs-without-realizing-it" types, but there is probably someone who stresses about the possibility that we won't know their character is feeling a certain way if they don't include an adverb.

What have I gathered from all of this?  To not worry so much about communicating the precise, minute-by-minute details of human emotion or expression.  Instead, concentrate on building strong dialogue (leading to action) and realistic, convincing action (based on the dialogue you just wrote).  Although occasionally, the use of an adverb is permissible.  J.K. Rowling uses them but sparingly enough that we don't really notice.

I hope this was helpful, and I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter!  What does "Show, don't tell" mean to you?  Have you incorporated this advice into your own work?

See you on Friday for First Lines.  Keep reading!

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