Tag Archives: telling

Glints of Light on Broken Glass: the Art of Showing in Writing

Some of the first things new writers are told is to write what you know, and to show, and not tell. Russian playwright and author Anton Checkhov is credited with having said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” underscoring the latter. Showing can be a powerful tool when used with discretion, but all too often new authors forget to do this, preferring instead to paint their word pictures with broad strokes rather than choose a finer brush.

I’ve often written about how writing is a construct, something artificial made to seem real. Everything authors do, from creating and recreating setting, penning plot, and/or developing character and dialogue is not real. Everything about any given scene is there for a purpose; the trick is to add them subtly so they seem happenstance .

One mistake many new authors make is in how to express the physical appearance of a character. Having the character stand in front of a mirror and take stock, making note of his or her own hair and eye colour, and the shape of his or her jaw, lips, and nose doesn’t work. How many times have you looked in the mirror and taken stock? When I look in the mirror, the bow of my eyebrow is only important to me if it’s time to get a waxing. I notice my eye colour if my clothes make them pop. I may make note of my hair colour, but only if it’s time for a dye job.

Here’s another mistake. When I flip my hair back from my face, I don’t think that my hair is brown with red highlights as I’m doing so. I might be cognizant of the fact that I’m flipping too many times in a day and am due for a cut. I might get frustrated and sweep it back into a ponytail, but I don’t take note of the colour. Your characters shouldn’t either.

When you get into your car to go to work in the morning, do you take time to contemplate that it’s a 2010 slate grey, four-door Toyota Camry?  Isn’t it more likely you might think that it’s a beater, or that it’s nearly half-a-decade old and still looks like new? Might you think it needs a wash? Would you rub at a patch of dirt to make sure it wasn’t a scratch? Be annoyed that the neighbourhood kids wrote “Wash Me!” with their finger on the trunk again?

If I describe the car, my reader will know a lot about the make and model of the car, but little about the driver. If I get into the driver’s head and show what he’s thinking, I’m building character. If my reader drives a middle-age Camry, s/he might find a small point of identification with my character. If I show my character as either taking pride in the car or neglecting it, I’ve given my reader a more precise point of connection.

The next time you show detail, consider narrative viewpoint. If you describe something your character wouldn’t normally see, think or hear, then change tack.  For example, if I smile, I can’t see my white teeth gleam in the sunlight. I might feel my cheeks ache, the cold air I let in when I part my lips might hurt my overly-sensitive teeth, or I can imagine I must look like a grinning idiot (but I can’t know for sure).

Never forget your job as a writer is to construct an immersive version of reality.   Paint your word pictures with fine detail, and texture with character, dialogue and setting, using only the palette colours limited by your narrative point of view.

Have you noticed these errors in the books you’re reading? Maybe you’ve made some of these errors yourself? Share your experiences in the comments below!

Guest Blog Post Announcement – 20 May 2013

I am proud to announce the publication of a guest blog post on TheWritePractice.com website.

Showing, not telling, is the mantra I use with my students in the first months of teaching Writer’s Craft. I tell them they must paint a word picture, using sensory information from all five senses. The trick is in finding balance between when to show and when to tell.

The post’s direct link is http://thewritepractice.com/word-pictures/. Please feel free to visit the site and post in the comments. I will make every effort to get back to you within 24 hours of posting.

Secret Daughter – Critique

When I reached out to the website offering reviews of science fiction by new authors, I hoped to get back something I could use, something that would help me market my eBook. Instead, I got a cursory glance at the first chapter or two of the manuscript and a series of negative comments that, had I not developed a tough skin over the years, would have made me throw in the proverbial writing towel.

I am a high school English teacher. For the past few years I have been blessed with counting Writer’s Craft among the courses I teach. The first third of the course is about “showing, not telling”. When you show, you engage the reader’s senses. “Pink cheeks” is telling; “rosy bloom” is showing. “Putrid smell” is telling; “rotten boiled cabbage” is showing. I pride myself on trying to incorporate showing and not telling in my writing. The review I received told me my writing tended toward exposition and I needed to show more.

I finished reading Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s novel, Secret Daughter this week, the story of two families, the Merchants and the Thakkars. Kavita and Jasu Merchant live in poverty in India. Jasu’s cousin kills their first child, a girl, because she is not a boy and the family will not be able to afford her dowry when she is grown. Unable to live with the same potential fate for her second daughter, Kavita travels with her cousin to give the baby to an orphanage. Their third child is a boy who, when he grows, helps his family climb from poverty with the proceeds of a drug trafficking business. Kavita never forgets her other two children. Upon what may be her death bed over twenty years later, Jasu finds out about their “secret daughter” and goes to the orphanage to find she was adopted by a family and taken to America. Somer and Krishnan are a mixed-race American couple who cannot have children. They travel to India to adopt Asha, a year old child, and bring her back to raise her in America. When she grows, she travels back to India to stay with Kris’s family and search out her birth parents. She finds their previous and current homes, but not them. In the process she learns how lucky she was to have been adopted by her parents.

Gowda’s writing style is mostly exposition with little dialogue (a good showing technique). In order to cover a span of more than twenty years in a single novel, I suppose one would have to tell—which can take the narrative far in a short amount of time—rather than show—which slows the narrative down or brings it to a halt while the reader lives in the moment, so to speak. Though the story she tells is touching, I found it hard to identify with any one character because they seemed flat. Somer, disappointed that she cannot have her own children is not excited about Asha’s adoption, which only drives home the fact that she and her husband are more different than alike. Rather than embrace and enjoy the child, Somer detaches herself from her family. While this makes an interesting dichotomy in that one mother loved her child enough to save her while the other remains distant and one father would have ended his child’s life while the other is the loving parent, I would have liked to have known more about Somer’s thoughts and feelings, more about her relationship with her daughter and how she can remain believing herself an outsider in her own family when there is a young child that is relying on her nurturing and support.

Point of view is another issue. Gowda’s novel is written in third person limited present tense, a point of view I don’t think I’ve ever seen in anything I’ve ever read. In general, present tense demands a sense of urgency, an interesting voice that has an interesting perspective on the events that take place. By contrast, third person limited, while containing the thoughts and observations of the main character, is filtered through the narrator’s eyes, which is why, I assume, it is almost always past tense, with the narrator reporting on something as if it has already happened. The third person limited present tense point of view did not work for me. I found the present tense awkward, and the limited more objective,  than I would have liked. At nearly 600 ePages, the point of view made the novel seem much longer than it was. As I was at a loss to identify with any one character, there was nothing motivating me to continue to read, other than a desire to see Asha reunited with her birth mother, which never happens.

My reading tastes are eclectic. I write mainly science fiction, but I dabble in detective fiction. I prefer reading literary fiction to mainstream. I love the language and will often read a book if the story isn’t interesting, but the narrative voice is entertaining (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley is case in point—brilliant narrative, less than interesting story). So why didn’t I like Secret Daughter? I wasn’t adopted, nor have I ever adopted a child, but I do have a family member that was adopted. I watched the anguish of her family as she found her birth mother and all but abandoned the family that raised her in favour of the woman who gave her up more than thirty years prior. I am a mother. Maybe this is why I can identify with Kavita’s motivations, yet question Somer’s. My bachelor’s degree is in Cultural Anthropology, so I was intrigued by Asha’s story as she learns about the children of the slums and their mothers and, in doing so, learns about the life she could have lived, had she not been given up for adoption, had she been allowed to live at all.

While I admire Gowda for publishing this, her first novel, in spite of breaking all the rules, I can’t help but feel a pang of contempt for all those “professionals” in whom I placed absolute trust to honestly critique my work. To all those people who told me I don’t show enough, I shouldn’t change points of view, I should consider changing from present to past tense, don’t have too many narrative voices, and make me feel like there is something wrong with my writing and that if I just do as they say I will get published, point taken; if you stray too far from the mould people may not read it because it is different from mainstream fiction. After reading Secret Daughter, hailed as a successful piece of literature, and rightly so, I have to wonder why new authors are criticized for being different. I chose to ignore the critique from that site, by the way. One thing I’ve learned in this process is that I can’t be a Charlaine Harris or a Kathy Reichs or a Margaret Atwood. I’d rather be true to my voice and my process and do right by my characters instead.

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