Do a Subtlety Exercise: Go find your favorite scene in your favorite book. Re-read it, put it away and write down these things:
a) A description of what happens and why it’s important to the story
b) How you felt after reading it
c) What makes you love it so much
Using what you just wrote down, go back through the scene and see how much (or how little) of that is included word-for-word by the author. If you like the scene because the characters are just so madly in love and worried about each other, does the author actually say that? Or is their emotion shown through something else entirely, like a tense argument about which one of them must go into danger?
You might have liked it for the “romance,” but what you actually read is an argument. The key is that a powerful writer can imply emotion without ever scripting it directly. You’ll be amazed how much authors leave off the page, allowing readers to fill it in on their own. And it works! Really well! One of the hardest and best lessons in writing is learning what NOT to put on the page. If you can hone your instincts here, it usually means lower word counts and seat-riveting scenes where every single word is packed with power and meaning.
That post was one of the reasons I decided to write this series of nerdy posts in the first place.
Show vs tell is one of the most common phrases thrown about online, and that's why I think it's a good starting place because it's so vague that it’s essentially meaningless. I think a better way of looking at the phrase isn't as one single problem/solution, but more of an umbrella term to describe writing without depth.
Bland, shallow writing has no voice, no subtext, cookie-cutter body language and/or description, and little ability to utilize quality over quantity.
Look Jane, see Spot. See Spot run.
So, no more using ‘show vs tell’ because it’s such an amorphous phrase. We’re going for precision, so one piece of the problem at a time. I’m hoping, when this series of nerdy posts is over, that you can go back to the link above, re-read that scene from your favorite book that you love, and can better pinpoint ‘how’ the author did what they did.
The problem is when you don't know what you're looking for, which is why precision is the first step.
If I say, "Look", with no other information, how do you know you're focusing on what I want you to?
On the other hand, if I point and say, "Look at that small child who is dripping chocolate ice cream down the front of her pretty red sun-dress." Now you can be confident we're both looking at the same thing.
I remember struggling, when it seemed like I was attacking from every angle and not getting any better, when I was frustrated with contradictory advice, and contradictory criticisms.
Being dyslexic means I had to make my own toolbox, since most of the ones out there don’t just fit. I’ll show you that tool-kit, and maybe something in there will make sense, so you can break writing down into smaller components, and it won’t feel so overwhelming.
Since my brain is in SCARLIGHT-mode, I’m going to use pieces of it for examples. If someone isn’t familiar with the basic premiss, the blurb can be found on the ‘What I’m Writing’ page, under Project #6.
If you don’t want to read that, the pertinent information is: the main character is Jay (Jason), a seventeen-year-old, already famous portrait artist who goes to a private school. He wants to use Kell, a girl from a public Fine Arts school, as his next model, and she’s somewhat resistant to that idea.
Again, to reiterate, I’m not saying, ‘this is the way to think/do things’. I don’t think my process/methods/weirdly-OCD-over-thinking will work for everyone, most likely it will work for very few...
BUT, if this series of posts helps even one or two people look at their own writing differently, if it helps them improve in the slightest, then I’m going to consider it a ‘win’.
I’ll take you down the rabbit hole... so jump in if you dare ;)