Tag Archives: story pacing

Telling Instead of Showing

Sooner or later, just about anyone seeking training in the fiction-writing craft is given the adage, “Show! Don’t tell.”

When starting out, newbies generally want to just tell their stories, much as we tell a friend what happened in a TV episode or a book we read recently. Our quick summation gets across the gist. However, the drawback to most narration is that it’s flat and less than involving for the recipient. The individual doing the telling may enjoy it immensely. After all, the story is clear in the teller’s head and imagination. But recipients are often unenthused by dull summations that go on and on.

How, then, do writers show a story? By dramatizing it in scenes–where the conflict that’s taking place between two opponents unfolds moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow, and in verbal exchange-by-verbal exchange. Also, by dramatizing it in sequels–where the viewpoint character hits a scene setback or meets momentary defeat and has to stagger back, react, process, and cook up a new plan of action. Getting the hang of writing dramatically takes time and practice. It requires considerable thought, and it’s a slower writing process than just dashing off a summary of what your characters are doing. But once you get the hang of it, it has the potential to bring stories to life.

Why, then, am I reversing all of that sound, solid writing advice in this post? Am I actually urging you to stop dramatizing and resume telling?

Yep.

But only under certain conditions and for certain purposes that will benefit your story.

Narrative summary is a specialized tool. Consider the sculptor of metal. This artist uses hammers, tin snips, welders, etc. This artist may also have a small acetylene blowtorch used to create a patina or apply colorization to the finished piece. Does the artist use a flame-thrower all the time? Probably not. But to achieve a particular effect, flame is exactly the right tool.

Like fire, summary possesses some drawbacks, but it offers benefits as well, and sometimes it’s better to tell rather than show.

What if, for example, you’ve written a story that’s stretched longer than your intended market allows? Perhaps you’re writing a children’s fantasy story, and intend to launch a series with it, so you’ve filled it with numerous character introductions, bringing in story people that will span the series beyond this initial book. You’ve thrown in subplots for the same reason. You’ve built a quirky, enchanting (pun intended) world. All of those factors gobble manuscript space. And perhaps you’ve tightened and streamlined all you can, but the scenes just kept marching forward, and the manuscript grew to be much too long.

Do you throw out a subplot? But if you cut it from the midsection then won’t a later reference to it seem contrived? Do you omit some of your characters? But what if you’ve chosen them carefully and ensured you haven’t included anyone extraneous to the plot. In other words, your story is tight but just too long.

The best solution is to pick certain scenes and summarize them. Not because you don’t know better, but because you don’t want to lose their essential contribution to your plot even while you need to reduce page count.

Look at scenes that have been written for character, perhaps to demonstrate or reveal some important character trait or an aspect of a character’s past that will play a subsequent part in the manuscript. Otherwise the scene carries little conflict or dramatic impact. Preserve what’s important and summarize the event.

Look at small scenes that are perhaps amusing or quirky and reduce them to indirect dialogue and a few paragraphs of summary.

Perhaps you’ve written a scene where Igor and Natasha are teaching Pytor how to tame a fire-spider (and no you can’t really use a fire-spider in your fiction because author Jim Hines created the beast and it belongs to him). Pytor is reluctant to learn and the fire-spider is less than cooperative. Maybe the scene is funny, conveys a vivid sense of place, and you just by golly like it, but the only truly important aspect of it is that Pytor needs to be able to minimally handle or control the creature. So you may have to sacrifice all the sparkling dialogue and moment-by-moment account of Pytor getting his fingers scorched while trying to safely pick up the fire-spider and boil down a ten-page event to a paragraph:

It took most of the afternoon to persuade Pytor to even pick up the fire-spider. By the time he’d burned his fingers twice and hopped about, shaking his hands and swearing so vehemently the fire-spider hid under a rock and the ground trembled, Igor was finally able to persuade him to use the gloves. Natasha made certain he understood how necessary it was to handle the fire-spider gently and not crush it in his fist. Natasha also enticed the fire-spider from beneath the rock with bits of a Twinkie she’d brought just to reward it. And eventually Pytor was able to balance the creature on his palm and even remember to orient it so that its head faced any on-coming foes. It was, Igor said resignedly, the best they were going to get, given the approaching deadline and what they had to work with. Pytor by then was too tired to argue. He knew, after all, that Igor considered him unsuitable for the job.

Nothing critical has been lost; the pacing stays quick; and the story can advance with a few less pages.

Boiling down your copy this way, for a valid reason, is effective. It varies how you’re presenting story, which makes your plot seem less predictable to readers. Just keep in mind that you should do this kind of thing in revision and not when you’re writing a rough draft. Otherwise, you’ll backslide into old habits of just telling.

Show, then tell … if you must.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fatal Summary

Controlling reader involvement is another necessary component of suspension of disbelief. Making readers care about your story is the first step. Thereafter, making them continue to care will encourage them to stick with your characters, willingly following the events in their imagination.

However, reader involvement can be discouraged, diminished, and even lost altogether when an author relies too heavily on narrative summary.

One of the five modes of discourse available to writers, narrative condenses story events or information into a summarized capsule that can boost story pacing, skim over trivial incidents, manage background or explanation, and transition quickly from one setting or time to another.

Narrative is extremely useful, but it carries a price in that it doesn’t lend itself to reader involvement.

Think of how you feel when a friend starts telling you about a terrific novel she’s just read. You’re interested at first, thinking you might want to read the book yourself, but when she launches into a lengthy summary of the entire plot, your interest flags, then you become bored, and finally you stop listening. Eager friend has spoiled it for you by skimming through the best parts, giving away the plot twists, and–worst of all–making it impossible for you to experience the novel in your imagination as it unfolds.

Therefore, when you write fiction, try not to fall into the trap of thinking you’re quickening pace by summarizing the dramatic action. Unless forced by length restrictions to shorten a story, you should never condense important scenes.

By their very purpose and construction, scenes are the most involving dramatic points a short story or novel can offer. Because of that, they are written in a way that immerses readers into the situation, the conflict, and every moment of the action and dialogue that transpires. But summarize a scene or important event, and you render it insignificant in a reader’s perception.

Suddenly, having set up reader expectation for exciting scene action, you drop kick your readers out of that vicarious experience.

It can be quite an unpleasant jolt when it happens. If readers enjoy the story otherwise, they’ll forgive such momentary turbulence and continue. But do this too often in the same tale, and you may well lose your audience completely.

For example, for the past week or so, I’ve been trying to read a mystery novel called PHOTO FINISH by Dame Ngaio Marsh. I’ve known about this author for years, but never acquainted myself with her work until a few months ago. She is considered one of the four original “queens of crime” from the golden age of mystery writing in the 1920s-1930s.

So far, I’ve read perhaps three or four of her books, all of them competent mysteries that I enjoyed. This one, however, I am struggling to finish. I’ve read another book since starting PHOTO FINISH, and I find myself doing other things instead of picking up the book. Worst of all, after several days, I have only reached the halfway mark.

(All fairly fatal signs, don’t you think?)

Now, in all fairness, PHOTO FINISH was published in 1980, two years before Dame Ngaio’s death. It was the next-to-last book she published, and I hope that I can do as well in my nineties after such a lengthy, distinguished, and successful career. The story is set in her native New Zealand, and her depictions of the scenery take me to a remarkable, most unusual backdrop.

Yet despite the flamboyant characters and exotic setting, despite the by-now familiar protagonist–Inspector Alleyn–and his wife Troy, the story just isn’t holding my attention.

The story premise is rock solid and exciting. The plot itself has a few hiccups, chiefly because at the halfway point there’s been no crime committed and as yet there’s still no mystery to solve. However, I realized that the primary reason I’m not engrossed is due to the author’s over-reliance on narrative.

The moment something exciting happens, Dame Ngaio pulls back the camera, so to speak, and relates the event in summary rather than letting the story action take place in moment-by-moment conflict. This unfortunate tactic, coupled with a lack of “real trouble” for the characters to handle, has created a slow, rather circular plot that’s stalled. And all the lovely scenery, vivid characters, and likeable protagonists are insufficient to hold my attention.

I’m going to finish reading PHOTO FINISH, even with gritted teeth and sheer determination, because I think it’s intriguing to see a notable author’s final works as well as her early efforts, but I am having to work much too hard to suspend disbelief in order to stay involved. Unfortunately, this particular story has become a curiosity for me rather than a novel that can carry me away.

Summarize too much of a story, and you end up with readers who just don’t care.

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Description: Love it. Use it.

Without description, fiction becomes cold and abstract, and readers find it difficult to visualize the setting, characters, or character reactions. Nor can they bond with character emotions if those emotions aren’t described. Such problems create a sense of detachment, which makes it easy for readers to lose interest and drift away from the story.

On the other hand, description slows down story pace. Too much description can sink a story or cause readers to skip passages. If readers skip, they’re likely to miss important information. If they miss that, a few pages later they don’t understand where the story’s going. Once they stop understanding, they lose interest. Unfairly, they may declare that your characters are “stupid” or your story just doesn’t make sense.

Therefore, when dealing with description writers need to focus on three factors: utility, vividness, and position.

Utility:
Before incorporating a passage of description into your story, ask yourself what purpose is it going to serve. Is it creating a sense of place, showcasing your world building, introducing a new character, or conveying character emotions?

Sense of place:
How easy it would be if writers could just tell readers that the story is taking place in London at 4 p.m. and leave readers to supply the rest.

Screenwriters have an advantage over prose writers in this area because of the camera. Movie or television audiences can see a vista or a house or a neighborhood or a menacing robot looming from the shadows of a poorly lit alley. It’s there on the screen. No need for the writer to expend words and energy depicting it.

However, prose writers must work much harder in conveying sense of place. We don’t want to ramble on and on, because readers will grow tired and skip our lovingly crafted paragraphs. Therefore, we need to put the image across quickly, economically, and effectively.

One of the best ways to do so is through the physical senses of your viewpoint character. Don’t just rely on the visual. Does the setting have a putrid stench? Is the air extremely cold? Are factory pistons pounding away at a deafening sound level? Does the drugged coffee have a bitter taste?

Dominant impression:
Don’t throw all the sensory impressions at your readers at the same time. For any given setting, determine the most prominent detail you want to convey and focus on that. It should be a logical one in terms of what’s happening in the plot. For example, perhaps you’re writing about a home invasion where the homeowner–your protagonist–pulls a handgun from his nightstand drawer and exchanges gunfire with the individuals who have broken into his house.

In this situation, what would be the dominant impression to describe during the gunfire? That’s right: sound.

Afterward, when the situation is over, what might the dominant impression be? Probably the smell of cordite.

By utilizing a dominant physical sense, you can describe on the fly–briefly and effectively–without employing a long, rambling passage that will slow down the story’s movement.

Vividness:
Painting a word picture requires strong, specific nouns and active verbs. Avoid the flabby qualifiers of adjectives and adverbs.

The big red dog walked slowly along the sidewalk.

How large is big? Does red mean the dog is a burnished color or does the dog have red paint spilled on his coat? Is he moving slowly because he’s fat, or is he limping, or is he frightened, or is he weak, or is he lost and unsure, or is he lazy?

Do you see how vague description conveys very little? No wonder readers grow impatient with it.

A mixed-breed dog roughly the same size as a bull calf and sporting crimson splotches of glistening paint on its head and shoulders roamed along the sidewalk.

Hmm. Is this vivid or confusing? In an effort to be unusual, the writer has jammed too much information together. The images clash and crowd each other. It’s not effective.

An Irish setter–red coat gleaming like a new-minted penny–ambled along the sidewalk.

Here, the writer has used the dominant impression of color to convey the dog’s appearance. The verb “ambled” indicates movement that’s content and unhurried.

However, if the writer really wants to describe a dog that’s been in the paint, let’s try that one again.

The stray dog–its head and shoulders glistening with splotches of red paint–fled down the sidewalk, spattering drops in its wake.

Don’t you expect that animal to pause under some nice old lady’s clothesline and give itself a good shake?

Now, are some of you jumping up and down, eager to remind me that I didn’t mention the dog’s size?

If the size is more important than the spilled paint, then focus on that with dominant impression. Otherwise, let that detail wait.

Position:
Where you insert description matters to your story’s dramatic (or comedic) effectiveness.

Pause Points:
Remember that description is perceived by readers as slowing down the story action, even if momentarily. Therefore, savvy writers place small passages of description in natural pause points.

For example, a new character enters the room where other–already established–characters are talking. Everyone stops and turns to stare at the newcomer.

This is a natural pause point in the story action. Insert a paragraph of description, thus introducing the new character to readers.

Or, to return to my example of the home invasion. After the shooting is over, there’s a natural pause point as the protagonist emerges cautiously from cover, switches on the bedroom light, and stares at the shambles. The wreck of the room needs to be described to readers. Certainly the character’s emotions need description here.

Suspense Points:
However, you don’t always want to put a slow passage at a slow spot in the story’s flow.

Sometimes writers deliberately slow down their stories in order to build anticipation for a coming event or to heighten dread toward a threat that’s about to drop.

Let’s say that your protagonist has been coerced into fighting a duel at dawn. He’s not feeling confident. You want readers to worry, to anticipate the danger and action about to explode across the page once the fight starts. But you don’t want to hurry the anticipation because readers enjoy it. Well-built and well-placed anticipation draws out and intensifies story suspense, thus providing readers with more entertainment value.

Sitting in the gondola, listening to the soft chuckle of water beneath the oar, Noel cradled the rapier beneath his cloak and gazed at the narrow buildings rising up from the gray mist of dawn. The cold air stank of fish. Overhead, veins of pink and turquoise faintly marbled the sky, which was lightening from gray to pearl. The clouds were soft. Across the indigo sea, the sun climbed slowly. Its mantle of gold and coral blazed with magnificent radiance. Before it, the sea changed color, becoming turquoise curling with lacy foam. A fleet of galleys floated in silhouette upon the harbor, their sails furled, their masts at rest.

Slow? You bet! That paragraph, taken from my science fiction novel TERMINATION, is static. There’s no action other than from whoever is rowing the boat toward the assignation. Had the passage been placed in one of the story’s pause points, it would be dull reading indeed. Instead, it’s spinning out anticipation of the duel that’s about to take place. The description of a Venetian sunrise has been positioned deliberately to heighten suspense.

The greater the impending danger, the slower you can be in letting your characters approach it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized