Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tutorial Tuesday – Show Vs. Tell, Part 3

We’re back with more ‘show, don’t tell’ tips.  As you will remember, getting into a particular character’s viewpoint and relating the story through his/her eyes is an indispensable tool.

Showing Other Characters

It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling your readers something along the lines of ‘Dani disliked and feared Kalquorians.  She wanted nothing to do with them, had even specified in her brothel contract she wouldn’t serve the alien men.’  But that’s telling, and it has little to no emotional impact.  Here’s an excerpt from Alien Slave (Clans of Kalquor 5) where we are shown how Dani feels about Kalquorians:

            As the door closed behind Dani, movement came from the far corner.  Instead of a dozen tiny Solns, three huge men stepped from the shadows.  Kalquorians.
            Dani had only an instant to register the dark-skinned, black haired aliens before turning on her heel and running for the door, a scream poised on her lips.  She’d not gotten one step before a thick, muscled arm wrapped around her waist, pinning her arms to her sides and pulling her to a granite hard body, lifting her from her feet.  The Kalquorian had her near six feet length dangling several inches above the floor.  She kicked wildly.
            “Let me go!”
            Another man stepped in front of her, moving in a blur to grab hold of her flailing legs.  He held her calves easily against one side of his body, rendering her helpless.  “We have paid for your time, Earther.”  His rolling bass of voice thrummed through her body.   He’d not ordered her to do anything, but the command in his tone stilled her struggles.
Terror made her own voice high and screamy.  “Not you.  Not Kalquorians.  It’s in my contract!”
The third man stepped into view, peering at her over the shoulder of the one who held her legs.  His tone was much milder, though still deep.  “We were told the extra money would change your mind.”
Dani curled her upper lip.  Damn Husta.  Owner’s sister or not, she’d pay for this.  “Well you were told wrong,” Dani loftily informed them.  “So put me down and let me leave.”

The reader knows without a doubt that Dani wants nothing to do with these particular men, that meeting them has put the prostitute in ‘fight or flight’ mode.  You don’t have to explain it to the readers.  They can draw their own conclusions by being engaged with the action.

The First Person Trap

Showing when you’re writing in first person has its own obstacles.  It’s natural when you write from a first person viewpoint to tell the reader your feelings.  When high emotion is playing out, it’s even more tempting to explain rather than demonstrate. 
In my work-in-progress Netherworld III:   Once Bitten Twice Dead, Brandilynn the ghost and Patricia the vampire are having a goodnatured verbal sparring match.  I could have told my readers from Brandilynn’s viewpoint how much she loves trying to get over on Patricia, but this would have spoiled their emotional involvement.  It was far more effective to show it:

Taylor stood and began to clean up the remains of our feast.  “It’s too cold to fly.  I’ll meet you there.” 
Patricia gave her a quick peck on the cheek then gathered herself to launch into the air.  With an arrogant smirk, both because I felt it and also wanted to take some of that grimness off her face I called, “Don’t be too slow.”
Vampires might be able to fly, but ghosts can materialize anywhere we want in the blink of an eye.  Being superior is fun.
Patricia wasn’t going to let me have the last word.  “Ha!   I remember all those wrong turns you used to take.  Aren’t you the one who ‘ported herself into a septic tank instead of the state aquarium?”
Oh yeah.  Cancel haughty disdain.  The stray thought of septic tanks instead of fish tanks had thrown me off course on my way to see the Titanic exhibit at the Atlanta Aquarium, and my blunder had given no end of delight to my supposed friends. 
I blew a raspberry at Patricia as she launched into the air.  She was just jealous I’d get to Tristan before her.

When It’s Time to Tell

Once in awhile it is okay to tell.  If you have objective information that has to be shared with the readers and can be done so quickly, then do so by all means.  It could be important that you get across how a character’s  anxiety is the norm rather than the exception, such as, ‘Roberta was nervous.  No one paid any heed, because Roberta was always nervous.  She spent every waking moment wound tight and waiting for the sky to fall.’  This is essential information because having Roberta chew on her fingernails and pace up and down the room shows us only one moment, not how she is in a constant state of panic.

Also if it is a very minor issue you’re reporting on, telling is perfectly fine.  ‘The house had stood empty a long time.’  ‘George seemed bored.’  As long as the point isn’t a major one that your readers’ emotions hinge upon, you can cheat a little.  A very little.

Plus you might have to worry about word count if you have a limit.  While waxing poetic on Margie’s enjoyment of the beach with its soft sand, the soothing rumble of the waves, and the aroma of brine that awakens childhood memories of summer vacation might transport your readers to that tropical paradise, you may have only enough room to report, ‘Margie dug her toes into the baby-powder sand and sighed as she relished being away from her dreary life.’

For the most part, you want to take your readers out of their surroundings and plant them in your story so they experience everything alongside the characters.  By getting in the characters’ heads and concentrating on what they experience, you’ll win the battle of show versus tell every time.

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