Posts Tagged show not tell
Sometimes writers have to state the obvious or
put in a scene everybody is expecting. But that’s
not a licence to coast. Here’s how Stephen King’s
The Green Mile makes an obligatory scene into
Some writers might coast here – surely the material is startling enough that you don’t have to do anything else with it, right?
Here’s what The Green Mile does.
It shows two execution scenes, in stark contrast.
The first isn’t real, it’s a rehearsal. One guard plays the ‘condemned’ man. He gibbers like a loon and makes lewd last requests. When the other guards throw the switch he writhes and screams with glee. The prison governor allows them to lark about, knowing he is seeing nervous men struggling with a difficult job. He also tries to keep the joking to a minimum because there is a newcomer who needs to be trained. This allows us a way in – in several ways: the prison governor trying not to let the hi-jinks get out of hand, yet realizing the men need to let off steam. The guards themselves, coping with the stress the best way they can. And the new guard, seeing all this for the first time. It also gives the author a licence to dump in as much exposition as he wants. Masterful.
And then he goes one better by showing an actual execution. And how different it is. The prisoner is frightened. The governor handles him with great sensitivity. The guards who were roaring with laughter before are nervous and gentle.
The Green Mile could have gone straight to this scene, relying on the content to speak for itself. But because he put the other one before it, the real one becomes much more appalling. We see how strange and difficult a thing it is to extinguish life.
I often see manuscripts in which the writer assumes there are some things they don’t have to explain. Execution is a nasty business – who’d have thought? Surely you don’t have to spell that out.
Wrong. For two reasons.
1 One of the things audiences have paid their money for is details of the grisly process. They need to get it somehow. What they don’t realize they want is for you to make it way more powerful than they were expecting. So you can’t just cruise with scenes like this.
2 In the world of your story, anything is possible. You could have, if you wanted, a bunch of prison guards who were completely blase, and no more affected by executing a man than if they were squashing a fly. You set the rules of the story, what is right, what is wrong, what is difficult and what is easy. And you have to demonstrate them.
So, an execution must be shown and it must be shown to be a difficult job. But The Green Mile turns this into storytelling gold.
Have you got any favourite examples of exposition and obligatory scenes that have been handled with panache? Have you solved similar problems?
We usually do all we can to ensure readers suspend disbelief.
But there is a story technique that directly invites the reader to reject everything they are seeing.
I call it challenging the reader’s oath of faith (although more literary types call it distancing or alienation).
Here’s an example. In the film Total Recall, the action stops and a psychiatrist tells the MC, Doug, that he is not on Mars, but in Rekall Inc’s offices on Earth, dreaming a pre-ordered fantasy – go to Mars, get the girl, kill the bad guys, save the planet. Now the psychiatrist tells Doug it’s gone wrong and he must exit.
The audience knows this may be true. Right at the start of the story, we saw Doug go to Rekall Inc for a virtual vacation to Mars. Everything has happened as he asked and now somebody has appeared to tell him the fantasy has to stop. It is a question not just for Doug but the audience. Choose logic, or know you are going with a delusion.
Done badly, it’s asking for disaster. But done well, it’s powerful indeed.
It tests our faith and reinforces it. We are given evidence that Doug’s whole adventure might be a dream – and we decide we don’t care. We give him and his cause our wholehearted commitment.
There’s a classic oath-of-faith moment in The Matrix. Morpheus tells Neo: ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.’
Here’s another example, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have shared Marion Crane’s confusion and guilt, been chilled by the creepiness of Norman. Then, in a long scene at the end of the film, a man perches on the edge of his desk and analyses everything Norman did in clinical, academic terms. Norman’s dead mother is living as an alternate psyche in Norman’s mind and that explains everything.
We think, is that all? Can this experience be summed up by psychobabble? Some commentators even complained this was Hitchcock having an off day – telling not showing, blatant use of exposition, stopping the action etc etc. They missed the point – it’s meant to make us pull back and think, this cannot be the truth.
In both these examples, the ground was prepared. Doug went to Rekall for a virtual vacation to Mars, and his adventures have been just what he asked for – so the logical objections have to be despatched at some point. And with Psycho, we do seek an explanation. But when we hear it, we shake our heads and say, no there’s so much more to it than that.
The writer’s skill was in tackling the question at the right moment. Slipping in the moment of distancing that would make us choose with our hearts.
Stories are about belief and faith. Yes, they must work logically, but that is just the surface. Underneath this, good stories tap into what we want, what we love, fear and care about. We respond to people we like and dislike, what is right, satisfying, inexplicably wrong – and what we feel to the core of our souls.
If you dare, tell the reader it isn’t real.
If Doctor Who was being made as a Hollywood movie, two lazy, cobbled-together storytelling problems would have to be sorted out.
I love Doctor Who. One of my earliest TV memories was Patrick Troughton drowning in a room of foam, which sounds cheap and silly but actually was bizarre and horrible. 1970s Doctor Who became my weekly tutorial in creativity. It was ‘what if everything around you was different’, on LSD. Shop dummies came alive and drove the Doctor away in a car, and turned around to look at him with blank faces. A storyteller couldn’t have a better start in life.
The reborn Doctor Who is different, of course, and in many ways better. However, the writers have got lazy when they have to extricate the Doctor from trouble. Husband Dave touched on this on Mirabilis Year of Wonders (which you can read here after his rant about the Daleks– strange how if you put our names together they make Davros).
These are the two storytelling sins I’m seeing worryingly often in Doctor Who.
1 The Doctor deals with a crisis with an outburst of gangsta-like posturing – ‘Yo, I’m the Doctor, be very afraid.’ Like he’s channelling Kanye West.
I like a character with attitude, and can get my groove on to Kanye West. But Kanye West Doctor Who is embarrassing. It’s not that the Doctor can’t be a remarkable, fear-inspiring creature – the problem is that the writers don’t show it.
Sherlock Holmes, a chap not known for modesty, doesn’t tell enemies to give in just because he’s Sherlock Holmes; he does something brilliant. But telling readers what to think and feel, instead of showing it, usually backfires. When Kanye West Doc says ‘be afraid of me’, my response is, ‘I’ve met plenty of plonkers like you’.
Yo, show not tell.
2 ‘Solve the situation by giving the bomb counselling’.
In the new Doctor Who, aliens, bombs and errant Hoovers are often talked into finding their inner humanity and then renouncing their evil intentions.
Actually, this would work if the writer had set up a weakness early on in the story that could be exploited in that way. You can pull absolutely anything out of the hat to solve a problem if it has been seeded properly. But in Doctor Who it often isn’t done, and so counselling the bomb looks like sentimental rubbish and the last resort of a writer who couldn’t think of anything better. Sir Terry Pratchett calls it makeitupasyougalongeum in his guest blog post on SFX. (He also points out that in more academic circles it is known as deus ex machina.)
You might say that I shouldn’t take these things so seriously. In that case, I urge you to look at the climax of GalaxyQuest. Although it’s a spoof, it played fair by the audience. The crew dragged a magnetic minefield behind the ship and tricked the enemy to wander into it. It was properly set up – earlier in the story we saw them have a tricky encounter with the minefield. It wasn’t plucked out of the vacuum as a thing they’d suddenly found and could use.
(This reuse of ideas seeded earlier is called reincorporation. It’s extremely satisfying and you can find more on it here.)
In Doctor Who, makeitupasyougalongeum surfaces in another guise: ‘get out the sonic screwdriver’.
The sonic screwdriver can get the Doc out of any hotspot if convenient. Some producers of earlier series minimized its use, because they didn’t want a gadget that could cure all. But now it’s a magic wand that writers can wave to solve any problem. Handily, they have it malfunction or make up new characteristics for it when they want the problem to last a while longer. Eg in Silence in the Library it apparently won’t open a door made of wood. I bet it’s opened plenty in the past.
The first rule of magical or powerful devices is to give them boundaries but this has none. What the sonic screwdriver can do is entirely governed by what is convenient for the writers in each episode.
As I’ve said, I love Doctor Who and regard it as essential brain food for creatives, young and old. But often it is plying audiences with major story cheats – ones that Hollywood movies, for instance, wouldn’t allow. Hollywood storytelling may sometimes push obvious buttons, but its principles are underpinned by what we respond to as intelligent life forms. We don’t like fudged explanations and we snigger at plonkers.
It’s kind of a law of the universe. Yo, don’t mess with that, Doctor.
Do you have any examples of makeitupasyougalongeum or Kanye West Doctor Who? Share them here!
If you simply must explain a process or procedure in your story, make it into a bit of an adventure. Like this recipe…
I wanted to do a festive post. Many blogs I follow offer recipes for brain-stimulating confections, Holly Cupala and jmartinlibrary to name but two. With a handle like Dirty White Candy it surely was my duty to create a signature goody. Especially as no one can tell me what the real stuff was.
I imagined the photo that would accompany the post. Heaps of something yummy, mainly white, streaked with trademark ‘dirt’. Perhaps chocolate. Or coffee.
I polled some friends. ‘Suggest a recipe that could be Dirty White Candy.’ Try divinity fudge with a twist, said one. How about bashed up biscuits instead of nuts? Perfect.
Only, in order to take the sumptuous picture, I would have to make the darned stuff. And, as any of you fudgemeisters will know, this entails faffing with molten sugar and thermometers.
I don’t have a sugar thermometer. I have never dabbled in such things. Years ago, chemistry A level put me off heating sugar vigorously. It’s a short step from caramel to tar-plating your pan. But I am an optimist. And I had set my heart on posting a festive recipe for dirty white candy.
I am also not patient. I could have waited to buy a proper thermometer, but I wanted to do it right away. Besides, knowledgeable souls said a bowl of iced water might do. That’s all I needed to hear. After all, I have chemistry A level. Surely I could manage.
I’m not saying I felt totally confident. I chose a pan I didn’t mind ruining. I read the instructions several times, even though they seemed simple. Put sugar, corn syrup, salt and water in a pan and heat until boiling. When it’s soft ball, dollop a spoonful into the beaten egg whites. Somehow, keep beating the egg whites with one hand and your volcanically hot sugar with the other. Steady the pan with your tail, if you have one.
I started. The sugar melted and in seconds was bubbling violently. Cripes, it was a monster. I spooned gobbets into the iced water until one drop formed a tiny pearl. Hooray, soft ball. Or maybe beyond. (Wished I got that thermometer; black tar was possibly moments away). I whisked a bit into the egg white and it took on a glossy appearance, like meringue. So far, so good.
Now I had to keep stirring everything, while testing for light crack, or something. Here my confidence got shaky, as did my multitasking. A spoon in each pan AND dropping stuff into water? That required three hands. And the testing instructions were alarmingly vague. It would leave streaks in the air when you pulled the spoon out, apparently. Even better, it would happen VERY FAST and if not turned out immediately would stick in the pan like a pot of set glue. As if the first stage hadn’t been fast enough. Eek.
By now I had no idea what I was doing. Every time I dropped it into the water it looked the same. But wasn’t it supposed to change VERY FAST?
Perhaps it had already.
I lost my nerve, whipped it off the heat, whupped it into the egg whites, shook in the bashed biscuits, spread it on a tray and heaved a sigh of relief. Whoo, I made dirty white candy. No blackened disaster, and no glue.
Except it didn’t set. It remained there like a big white splat. I had peaked too early.
‘Um, what is it supposed to look like?’ said Dave.
‘Divinity fudge,’ I said.
‘And what does that look like?’
‘Actually, I’ve no idea.’
(In England, we don’t have divinity fudge.)
We prodded it. Ate spoonfuls (several in fact). We left it, in case it wanted time to think. It developed a light skin, like custard does, but that was as solid as it got.
I’d come this far. Darn it, I wanted my signature candy. But in no way could I cut this up and display it on my prettiest plates, as cake gurus insist you must. Pretty plates wouldn’t hide the truth.
I wondered about doing it all again. No; without a sugar thermometer there might be worse outcomes than a big white splat.
Dave said: ‘Let’s smear it on ginger biscuits and make it look as though it’s worked, then you can take the picture.’ We did. It looked like sticky white stuff smeared on biscuits, (although it didn’t taste bad). I reckoned even if we didn’t have a clue what divinity fudge looked like, you guys would spot the subterfuge.
We ate spoonfuls until our teeth felt like they were wearing socks. Considerable amounts remained. We squashed it into a bowl and stuck it in the fridge. Next morning it had not transformed. It reproached me every time I went to get the milk.
In desperation I spooned dollops onto a baking sheet and shoved it in the oven at 200C. In 12 minutes they had swollen into golden cookies, light as clouds, and sticky within. Delicious.
And so, after much ado, I can present to you, dirty white candy… the cookies! Happy holidays. Or as we say in the divinity fudgeless world, merry Christmas and a happy new year. It’s not what I set out to make, but hey that’s part of the fun.
Stories are like that too. The best scenes or anecdotes, expositional or not, don’t turn out as anyone expects.
How have you handled scenes that were in danger of being exposition?
And have you tried making my cookies 😉 ?
As NaNoWriMo gets under way, how are you doing?
Are you finding NaNoWriMo easier than you thought it would be, or harder?
I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because other projects have got in the way, but I have had to write several novels to tight deadlines – 50,000 words in two months, finished and ready for a publisher to see. It was effectively two NaNoWriMos back to back, which I did several times. I had detailed synopses, but I had to just get my head down and pound out the words. It taught me a thing or two about keeping myself at the keyboard.
Here are my top seven tips.
1. Are you getting into the scenes enough? If you’ve written a synopsis, you’ll have summarised everything. The first draft is where you turn it into living, breathing scenes. That’s how you meet the wordcount, because it takes a lot more words to write a scene blow by blow than it does to say ‘Vanessa confronts the woman who betrayed her’. In your NaNo draft, DO NOT summarise anything. Show, not tell. Try writing to music – it can help you immerse yourself. If scented candles do it for you, give yourself a Proustian boost!
2. Are you worried about the quality of what you’re writing? Don’t be. NaNoWriMo is about inventing. Editing is not allowed until the month starts with a D but you might be better leaving it until J is involved. You can’t edit as you invent, your brain doesn’t work that wayand you’ll never make the wordcount if you stop to fret over what you’ve written. So let the scenes unfold in your head, write down what’s happening and to hell with how it reads.
3. Are you getting stuck in your story? Use reincorporation. Find a thing or a character you put in the story before and work it back in to solve your problem. This is the single most useful way to solve a story problem.
4. Are you giving yourself enough credit? Make yourself visual awards. Find a way to visually represent how far you’ve got – a thermometer with coloured bars, a graph climbing slowly skywards, or any combination of these. Put them up in your work area. Yes this is just like in infants’ school where the teacher puts up rows of stars. We are primitive at heart. Reward your inner child for writing so much.
5. How NaNo is your environment? Theme your writing area. If you’ve made an ideas scrapbook for your novel, put up pictures and make the edges of your monitor or your desk into a mood board. Change them regularly to keep your interest and sense of immersion, or to kick-start your writing for the day. In December, tinsel and stuff helps you feel Christmassy; in November, decorate for NaNoWriMo.
6. Will you be derailed if you miss a day or fall behind? Everybody falls behind a little, because we all have lives to live as well as books to write. A sudden birthday or crisis need not derail your NaNo plan. Make sure your writing plan includes some slack so you can steal back time if you need to. If it doesn’t, rewrite it NOW, while you still have plenty of room for manoeuvre.
7. Remember NaNoWriMo is an experiment. You are experimenting with your muse and your writing habits by setting yourself a challenge – and a difficult one. Experiments don’t fail or pass; they produce what they produce. Some of it will be nonsense, and some will be sublime invention. This is why it’s a good thing to do, despite what its critics will say. Stay the distance and see what happens. Enjoy the journey and the surprises. That’s what it’s all about.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, how’s it going? Post up a link in the comments to let us all cheer you on! If you’re a past WriMo, what advice would you give to this year’s runners?
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.