Sensing versus Reading – A new spin on the “Show, Don’t Tell”

Posted: November 9, 2014 in Fantasy Roman-Style, Science Fiction, The Writing Process
Tags: , , ,

The Opal Necklace

Anyone whose done any creative writing at all has most assuredly had the old “Show, don’t tell” beat into their skulls by well-meaning instructors.  Nothing wrong with the phrase, and, in fact, it works.  What they usually don’t extrapolate is the “How” part of that showing without simply telling.

I have discovered my method of “How” and it’s very simple.  I ask myself, about everything I describe, how does it make me feel?  (And by me I mean that I filter it first through me, then through the character whose point of view I’m using for the scene.)  Each of us has a plethora of experiences, and quite a few of us like to share these memories, good or bad, with one another.  Look at social media entries on sites like Facebook* -most everyone is more interested in telling us how they feel about something rather than exactly what occurred there: “Having a great time!”  Or the opposite – your car breaks down in a dark neighborhood.  It’s not just the broken streetlamps, or the sound of rats scurrying in the trash littering the alleyways.  These things help to build the tone, but its the reaction to them which holds power, especially in fiction.

Most of our most poignant memories elicit a memory of the FEELING of being in it, rather than a second-by-second replay of events.  The latter would be horrifyingly droll.  The former is what brings others into the moment.  We may not have exactly the same experience, but every human being on this planet shares the same set of emotions, whether they show it or not.  (Or misdirect it.  Some really creepy villains stem from those who absolutely LOVE things the rest of us find abhorrent, but to them it is love.)

This is insanely useful in fiction, as it brings the human element into what is essentially a foreign world (fantasy and science fiction are notorious for high-level play-by-plays of the scenes.)  It allows the reader to sense the world rather than reading what it’s all about.

For example:

The sun crested in the noonday sky, baking everything below.

Consul Norrus felt uncomfortable in his breastplate and leather armor, and cursed.

 

This one rates a “meh” on the description meter.  Barely.

But now I take it to a personal level:

 

Consul Norrus mopped at the sweat on his forehead and squinted at the scorching noonday sun.  His breastplate absorbed the heat, cooking him in the

ridiculous accoutrement his title forced him to wear, and he prayed some small crisis erupted requiring his presence erupted, preferably somewhere with plenty of shade.

 

Now I get a sense of not only of the heat of the day, of Norrus’ discomfort with the armor, but also his feelings about some of the necessities of his position.  This makes him a human –how many of us have been forced to wear something uncomfortable just to satisfy some obligation of our profession or duty?  This brings us closer to him as a person, either as someone we like (which I hope in this case you, dear Reader, will, as Consul Norrus will be showing up as a protagonist in The Opal Necklace) or someone you despise.

Of course, there are plenty of scenes in stories which have character, no point-of-view, right?  Wrong.  An omniscient narrator point-of-view falls very flat without a tone, without a reaction to the course of events they are narrating.  Otherwise, it’s once again just a narration, and probably worthy of setting the book aside.

I want to make my reader sense the scene rather than simply read it.

 

* Or don’t. I won’t necessarily advocate it, because I’m not a fan myself, but it has its uses.

 

 

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