Pacing

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I know nothing about pacing. I’m not even convinced that it’s a thing. If I’m reading a story and get bored, I don’t say the pacing is slow. I say it’s boring. That tells you more ways and more specific ways to fix it. If a story has two breathless action scenes in a row in a way that doesn’t work for me I don’t say the pacing is too fast; I look for something that’s missing. Raiders of the Lost Ark is just as fast, but it isn’t too fast.

I’m not convinced there’s such a thing as “too slow” or “too fast”. There’s such a thing as too boring, and such a thing as too many questions per second. The opening action scenes shouldn’t continually increase the reader’s uncertainty and pull their attention in different directions, because the information they provide will be outweighed by the questions that information immediately leads to. The opening action scenes in Raiders give us more story-relevant information than questions. They don’t open troubling new mysteries on us in the beginning or middle of an action sequence.

If there’s a correct ratio between slow and fast, or a correct interval at which to alternate between them, I don’t know about it. But I’ll play along for now and assume “pacing” means something measurable and useful for a story.

I was scanning in “Scene and Structure” by Jack Bickham when some of the highlighted words in the chapter on pacing caught my eye. As often happens, though I read it only two months ago, I had no recollection of any of it. I think maybe some alternate-universe stupid me underlined it, because he underlined the wrong parts. It said some surprising things that I would have remembered, or at least highlighted, if I’d read them.

Jack Bickham divides stories up into what he calls scenes and sequels. A scene shows a conflict; a sequel tells what the main character thinks about it afterward. Bickham’s theory of pacing is that scenes are fast, and sequels and interior thoughts within a scene are slow. So his prescription for making a story’s pacing faster or slower is to change the ratio of scenes versus {sequels and interior thoughts}.

This has the counterintuitive results that you can make something faster by making it longer, fleshing the scenes out with more detail, and you can make it slower by making it shorter, converting weak scenes into summaries (which are then sequels).

I at first mapped “scenes” to “showing” and “sequels and interior thoughts” to “telling”. This is close, but not quite right. I’ve read a short story that was boring because it was all telling and a short story that was boring even though it was all showing. I thought that the problematic opening was all a single scene, all showing. Why was the “pacing too slow” if it was all scene / showing

Then I realized it wasn’t a scene at all by Bickham’s definition. A scene starts with a protagonist who wants something, and an obstacle. It had a protagonist with a problem, but the reader wouldn’t learn what it was until the second scene. So the opening “scene” was neither scene nor sequel, according to Bickham, but an unclassifiable thing that you should not write.

So I don’t have to believe in “too fast” or “too slow” to benefit from his advice on pacing. I can think of “pacing” as just meaning “the ratio of scenes to sequels”, and this turns out to be useful (and more precise) information.

Here’s my theory of pacing, which I just made up at this moment: Pacing means balancing the load across your reader’s processors. Your reader has, at the very least, a graphics processor (GPU) for visual and perceptual scenes, a CPU for logical thought, and an EPU (Emotion Processing Unit) that decides how they feel about all these things. Bad pacing means fully-loading one of these processors with multiple tasks while another of them sits idle. Your reader’s CPU can still be crunching on the consequences described in the previous sequel while their GPU is absorbing the details in the current scene. If you put too many parts in a row that task only one of these processors, you’re not challenging your readers.

Scene Structure Cures Dull Dialogue

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Dialog killed several of my stories. Long stretches where one character had to communicate something complex to another character. Boring.

Someone once told me they wanted me to liven up the dialog with more description and more body language. This never helped. But I gradually realized a different way to deal with the problem after reading chapter 4 (“The Scene”) of Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure and chapters 7 & 8 (“Dialogue” and “Details”) from Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and from studying Augustus Burroughs’ thrilling prose about mundane things in Running With Scissors.

Every scene, Bickham says, must:

1. Have two characters who have opposing goals.
2. Start by establishing the protagonist’s goal in that scene and how it’s important to the story goal.
3. Have active conflict between the two characters.
4. End in a setback for the protagonist.

Scene goals, Bickham says, must not be vague or philosophical, but specific and immediate, so that the reader can say at the end of the scene whether they were achieved.

Dialogue, Prose says, must always do several things at once. It conveys verbal information between characters, but also their attitudes towards each other, towards life, dominance and submission, attention and inattention, and, to the reader, their true intentions. Above all, each character in the dialogue must have a goal, a reason to be talking or listening, to determine what they say and don’t say.

Description, she says (and I’m paraphrasing heavily), is not like setting a stage or taking a photograph. She emphasizes the use of small details, but the lesson I take from her examples from famous stories, and from Burroughs’ writing, is a different one: Don’t describe things because they’re in the room. Describe things that pop out to the viewpoint character because of what they’re thinking.

This requires you to know what they’re thinking. And that requires them to be thinking.

Similarly, body language should not be used just to space out the dialog. Filling out bland dialogue with generic body language–”she bit her lip,” “he stamped his foot,” “she blinked”–is not very helpful. They’re not bad. I probably use at least one of these three expressions in every chapter of every story. But if all the character experiences are generic emotions–anxiety, impatience, shock–then you don’t have a character, but a plot device. A character has a goal in every scene, and that goal suggests what details the character notices and what they do with their body. Making every character have a goal or at least a train of thought will give you the body language, descriptive details, and conflict to keep dialogue exciting.

Armed with this information I did some writing and found out that there is an important caveat here. Don’t be too realistic in the boring way life is realistic. Character-A might be trying to be entertaining, but why? He’s chatting, projecting some personality; but without a purpose, it’s just aimless small talk. He’s flirting, but only in the automatic, disinterested way habitual to dominant males. Character-B might passively listens to Character-A ramble aimlessly. The scene does what my outline said it had to do(“cheer Character-B up enough for her to make another try”), but that structural task doesn’t engage the reader. Nobody has a goal.

Comedy vs Humor

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“Comedy is not king with regard to commercials. Humor is. There’s a critical difference. The objective of comedy is to amuse. If you look back to the word roots of amuse, you’ll get “to not think”. Advertisers want people to remember their product or service. How many times have you seen a commercial which is so funny you can’t remember the product or service?

Now, the objective of humor is to emotionally connect the audience or listener with an experience. When a message is connected with emotion, the memory recall of the message goes way up. Humor is the glue between message and memory. Making a line or word in the commercial funnier can adversely affect the commercial.”

          –From a 2009 VoiceOverExperts podcast on voiceover acting:

That doesn’t mean humor isn’t funny, or that anything emotional is humor. That would be silly. It means Ren and Stimpy is comedy, and Woody Allen is humor. This may be a made-up distinction, but I like it.

In most cartoons, comedy is king, and they take a very different approach to narrative. Outrageous coincidences, physical impossibilities, unbelievable stupidities, flat contradictions and discontinuties with previous shows — pretty much anything — are permissible if they are funny. I like funny, but you can’t make viewers care about the characters when you go to that level, because then the viewers know that they aren’t real, and they live in a world where nothing can harm them for long, and nothing on the screen really happens. I remember how the light saber duel between Yoda and Count Dooku killed whatever interest I had left in the Star Wars prequels. I don’t know if it was supposed to be funny, but the theater audience laughed all the way through it. After that, it was no longer a universe I could take seriously.

Consider this scene: Character-A is concerned about his masculinity. He wanders out into the waters, and just happens to run into a manticore who will teach him how to be manly. That sets the entire story within a frame of “This can’t happen.” The outrageous coincidence isn’t itself comical, but the writers will allow it only because they were already within a comic framework where it didn’t matter. When a colony of gnomes wants to marry some human girl, you don’t ask, “Are there any female gnomes? Do gnomes gnormally (see what I did there?) reproduce through interspecies breeding? What will their offspring look like?”, because you know the writers didn’t think about it and those answers don’t even exist in the story world. I will never care deeply about characters in such a framework.

How To Write An Adventure

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Ah, Adventure! It has always been my favorite genre, and a lot of people love good adventure stories. But why? What makes an adventure? What do people want out of adventures? What do you (as an author) want out of an adventure when you are writing it?

‘Adventure’ is defined as ‘an unusual or exciting experience’, and what’s great about that definition is that it can be applied to so many things.

Adventure stories are, in essence, stories that have settings which explore the unknowns of their worlds, and leads (or sometimes forces) the protagonist(s) to face an overarching problem that they would only be able to conquer by developing as a character. Whether they succeed or not isn’t too important, but what does matter is the journey, the struggles they face, and how they face them.

When you ask a reader why they like certain adventure stories they’ll often say that they loved a specific element in particular. “I loved that magic system.” “I loved the way the world felt dynamic, like there was reason for everything even when the characters were just passing through a new location.” “I loved the political turmoil and the way the kingdom was pulled into war and strife and everything fell to pieces.” Often it is these elements that we point to when we think back to a story years after reading it. These memorable elements are the pinnacles of complex ideas forged from the process known as ‘world-building’.

World-Building is the cornerstone to all adventure, and it is the biggest draw to readers of the adventure genre. World-building is essentially exploring any facet of a fictional world and it is entirely necessary in any work of fiction.

But world-building covers many more things than you might initially expect: Geography and introducing new locations, new cultures, monsters and animals, plants, history, economics, politics and intrigue, religions, and even off-screen character actions (including gaps of time in between scenes, the bad-guy’s unseen actions and the repercussions of such actions, and other off-screen characters’ actions).

So why World-build? Simple: you want the readers to be immersed in your writing. You want them to be able to focus on the story you are telling and wonder what is going to be around the next corner—the next chapter.

For a reader to be immersed in a world with unbelievable and fantastical events, you need to craft a very believable world that explores believable consequences to those unbelievable events. In other words, if you are going to use magic, then understand how magic works. If you are going to make a town be over the next hill, know how that town was built, what it’s made out of, who lives there, why they live there, what they do, why they do it, and whether or not they want to be doing that. Look at the new place (town) or concept (magic) and ask why? Why does it work like that? Why is it here? Why did the townsfolk act that way? Why did that spell blow up instead of working as it should have?

As an author practicing world building, there is no greater power at your disposal than questioning your own world. If you can’t give an answer to one of the questions, then think about it until it is answered. Eventually, after thousands and thousands of questions thrown at every element of your story as you introduce it, the world will start to feel like it could actually exist. If you do not ask these questions and consider their answers, readers are going to point out flaws in your world as they crop up—those jarring inconsistencies. Because they are going to be asking those same questions that you should be asking.

The best part of world-building (read facetiously) is that maybe only ten percent at most of those questions will ever be revealed to the readers themselves. So much effort and so little to show for it… right?

Wrong! If you do it right and clear out all the troublesome wrinkles and kinks in your story’s world, then you are going to have some readers who are going to enter a whole new world as they read your story. They are going to see it as a place to explore with potentially exciting characters to meet. Think of the world-building as giving a reader a pair of glasses. Every question you answer makes the glasses have clearer lenses. They still might not like what they see, but at the very least, if they see something they do like, they won’t have cracked glass and weird splotches marring the sight.

Fun simile aside, we now have world-building out of the way. So let’s look at Starting an Adventure. To start an adventure, you need one thing above all else: Reason. You need a reason for the character(s) to leave the confines of their safe and peaceful village and go on a grand adventure in the first place. It could be that the character makes the choice, or that some unavoidable event forces them to leave their hometown. What really matters is that the character has reasons that make sense and drives them into the adventure in the first place.

You don’t want the readers thinking, “Why would she go on and adventure in the first place? Shouldn’t she be more inclined to stay at home and let the X and Y characters handle it?” These are the sorts of thoughts that distract from the reading experience and will have the character seem flimsy and misused (or perhaps even out of character) in the eyes of the readers. And since characters are the ones that carry your story, you can’t afford for them to be flimsy, or the whole thing will come crashing down partway through.

Another thing to look at when starting your adventure is the themes. What themes do you want to use? War? Magic? Love? Duty/responsibility? Destiny/Fate? Hatred? Good vs. Evil? There are tons of themes that adventure stories use, and knowing which ones you are going to pursue is always a good idea. You should try to establish some of those themes in the first chapter. If the story is going to have fight scenes with blood and gore, then let the readers know about that in the first chapter by showing them. Have a farmer being murdered and give as much of the graphic details as you plan to use in the story. If you want the tone of near-hopelessness in the story, then have the protagonist’s world fall around them and leave them nearly sunken into that pit of despair.

Sometimes it isn’t quite possible to establish that tone and themes properly in the first chapter. As the transition from happy Shire, to Samwise fighting an impossibly evil giant spider while his friend slowly succumbs to it’s poison is quite the jump. Well, that’s what prologues are for. Any particular themes and general tones can be tossed in there, and thus the readers will know thematically what they are going to get themselves into, and some will be quite looking forward to it. It is unfair to the reader to drop these themes on them without a bit of warning.

Now, I’ve seen adventure stories written in two particular styles. One way is what I call the ‘planned’ way, and the other is what I call the ‘organic’ way. In a ‘planned’ adventure, the author plans out all the major events that are going to happen and finds a way to get the characters to end up on that planned path. The characters growth and reactions are planned for and build into future events. While the ‘organic’ adventure has the author make it up as they go. The characters drive the story onward with their actions and lead them to unexpected places. Most of the plans that the author might have made earlier on are scrapped as the characters make different choices, causing the story to be unpredictable to the authors themselves.

In the end, both writing styles are almost indiscernible from one another if they are done well enough, but I feel as though the ‘planned’ style lends itself to stronger overall cohesion of themes and narrative, while the ‘organic’ style lends itself to stronger characters. Both styles have their downfalls as well. With the ‘planned’ style, your characters can easily become two-dimensional in nature, as if their purpose were just to be the vehicle that dishes out themes and plot points of the story to the reader and their actions come across as contrived. While with the organic style, it’s all too easy to have the characters take the story away from where you wanted it, and end up getting you into pointless situations that have no bearing on the overall story or they end up tackling themes that were not part of the original concept.

Another point that needs mentioning… Cliffhangers. The point of cliffhangers is making the reader ask ‘what?’ or ‘why?’ But make sure they aren’t asking because it doesn’t make sense; they have to be asking because they know it has to make sense, but they don’t have the full story and they want to know. The way to get them to understand that it will all make sense is simply through using cliffhangers more than once. If you can make a cliffhanger and then answer the readers questions in a satisfactory manner that doesn’t break the laws of your world in the following chapter, then your readers will know they can trust you as an author. As such, they’ll accept your cliffhangers more readily.

There also has to be a good reason why the information isn’t known to the readers other than: “It’ll be revealed at the beginning of the next chapter”. Often, you can have one of the characters struggling to answer the same question that one of the readers would have, which allows for an immersing cliffhanger. The questions that the reader has should be addressed, and the reader should know it will be answered in the coming chapter(s). That way, they don’t have to worry about whether or not it will actually be answered, but they will instead look forward to how it will be answered and perhaps have some fun guessing at the possibilities.

Be careful with cliffhangers though. It’s nice to have people looking forward to your next chapter. Adventure stories use them fairly often, but you don’t want to write cliffhangers all the time. Consecutive cliffhangers can get really draining on readers and lessens the effect with every one that you use. You need to balance them with chapters where the characters end with getting some rest and having no huge lingering question over their heads. A calm chapter where characters put things together after a cliffhanger is a really great thing for a reader to come across from time to time.

But, what about those little adventures? The ones that are not grand and epic, but still are out-of-the-ordinary experiences?

Premise and setting can be on either end of the spectrum as it is important to note that not every adventure needs to be like the Lord of the Rings. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with writing a grand, sweeping tale with war, love and a quest to conquer evil, there’s so much more that can be explored in this genre.

Sometimes, an adventure can be as simple as a bunch of kids getting lost in the woods and having to work together to make it back home. Along the way, they might meet strangers who help or hinder them, or they might encounter dangerous beasts that try to eat them. Whilst it may not be something grand or world-changing enough for bards to sing about, it can certainly feel like that for the characters. It’s about the experience. It’s about conveying to your readers how that experience is unusual and exciting to your characters.

Often, the setting and premise can be exotic enough that they alone are enough to propel the story into adventure territory. But sometimes, it is the character that makes the setting or premise adventurous, even if it may be something that readers are familiar with. An example of the first would be some hot shot adventurer exploring ancient ruins and discovering artifacts possessed by evil spirits or some such, whilst the latter may involve a young scholar falling asleep in the library and getting locked in after hours. Neither setup is inherently superior to the other; I simply wish to highlight that both are viable options for an adventure.

In either case, I believe that the most important thing is to show your readers how and why your character’s experience is special.

What are your characters feeling? Is it sadness when they are lost and alone? Is it fear when they are thrust into a hostile environment? Excitement at a chance to get away from a monotonous job? People are going to react differently to a given situation based on their past experience, and an adventure is a great chance for you to flesh out your characters through their actions in an unusual environment.

You might have noticed that my definition of adventure doesn’t align very well with what usually constitutes adventure. Most people’s definition of adventure leans more towards the grand narrative type.

This is where I’d like to point out the difference between adventure as an experience and adventure as a story category. So far, I’ve been talking about adventure mostly as an experience, wherein it’s the characters that make the story feel like an adventure, even though it may or may not be in an everyday, slice-of-life kind of setting. Adventure as a category is taken to mean stories with certain qualities that people often associate with adventure, such as having epic quests and massive world-building.

Confused? Let’s try looking at it another way.

Story 1: A professional adventurer exploring a forgotten, ancient ruin.

Story 2: A scholar as a child getting locked in the library after hours because she fell asleep.

There can be a sense of adventure in both of these stories because the characters are experiencing something new, something unusual and exciting or scary.

I’m pretty sure that Story 1 would indisputably be categorized as Adventure, whilst Story 2 would most likely be categorized as Slice of Life.

People like putting labels on stuff, and Adventure as a label in most of what I’ve seen is taken to mean epic quests, long journeys, etc., which is what Story 1 has. Story 2 gets the Slice of Life label because it’s set in what could easily be a typical day gone wrong in that scholar’s childhood.

Why is all of this important? Because I write first and foremost for the experience, and not necessarily the category. If you share this sentiment and want your character to have an adventure, go ahead and write it out. If certain aspects of your story would make it fall under a different category, then so be it; it’s not the end of the world. After all, labels help people find what they’re looking for, and having standardised labels increases the chance that the right people will discover and take an interest in your story.

Set-up and pacing can make or break an adventure story so I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least talk a little about how you may begin your story and about when you choose to deliver on the experience of adventure that you promise to readers in your story’s description.

Some premises do require a little setting up before you can get to the juicy parts, so to speak.  This is often done in the form of a prologue, where you give readers a quick introduction of your character(s) and/or the world that they live in. Alternatively, some authors just include this setup early on in the first chapter. The reason this is done is often to give readers some sense of the scope of your story and where your main character stands in all of it. It gives readers some context so that they can understand what’s going on.

This approach can be good for stories with a large scale adventure, but do bear in mind that this sort of introduction can feel like one is reading a textbook. If you bombard readers with too many facts that they are expected to remember in order to properly enjoy the story, it can get to the point where it feels like a chore. Personally, I feel that an introduction should not exceed two thousand words, but it can be flexible depending on how interesting you can make it.

Alternatively, some authors choose to jump straight into the action. You may start with your character smack in the middle of a battle, or just recovering from a concussion after having fallen into the bottomless pit of an ancient ruin. I think this approach is better at drawing in readers because it gives them the ‘juicy bits’ straight away, but it does come with its own set of challenges.

Jumping straight to the action can mean that your readers are going in blind, armed with only the information from your story’s description. That’s usually enough to satisfy them whilst your character tries to get out of the fix that he/she’s in, but you’ll eventually have to provide readers with more context for the world that your character inhabits to show them why they should care about your story.

This can be done through your character’s interaction with the world, interaction with other characters, or through flashbacks and the like. But this sort of in-story world-building does require a more careful planning and execution so that your readers don’t feel like your characters are spouting facts just for their benefit. It can feel like they’re breaking the fourth wall. At this point, you may see the advantage of the previously mentioned exposition style of introduction, where you can have all the necessary facts provided quickly and efficiently before going into the story.

With the quick action approach, you also have to be careful not to go overboard with what’s going on, otherwise readers might get confused and lose interest before they begin caring about your characters.

Of course, these are just two examples from opposite ends of the spectrum. There are others that fall anywhere in between pre-story exposition and in-story world-building. Experiment and find out what you’re good at!

Consequences may not be necessary for all stories, but I personally prefer stories wherein the character(s) gain or lose something after the adventure. There should be something that changes by the end of the tale, whether it’s something as simple as the character taking home a souvenir or learning a lesson, or something heavier like a permanent injury or finding a partner for life.

These things serve as acknowledgement of the adventure and the character’s involvement in it. And if your readers were engaged, it also acknowledges their involvement in reading the story, perhaps to the point where it feels like they have taken something home from the adventure too. It’s about giving readers a sense of closure and completeness.

Though, do bear in mind that not every story needs to have an ending that ties everything up nicely. It depends on what you want your readers to feel at the end of the tale. Sometimes stories are left with unclear, open endings that are meant to be thought-provoking.

So, I’ll be the first to admit that writing adventures is fun. I love it. But what do you, as an author, want to get out of it? For me, writing an adventure is getting to explore a new world and to play around with and mold it however I want. I enjoy seeing the characters grow and change, and seeing how their actions affect the world. I love when the characters decide to take my own plans and disregard them. They move past and seek the adventure all on their own. Breathing life into these characters’ actions and repercussions is awesome, and being immersed in my own writing is my favorite feeling when writing.

What are you getting out of an adventure as you write it? Only you can find an answer to that.

News From The Front In The War On Adverbs

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Mark Liberman blogged on Slate (Stop Hating on Adjectives and Adverbs) about repeated advice from experts to eliminate adverbs & adjectives. Like this:

“So how do we produce readable and clean scientific writing? One of the good elements of style is to avoid adverbs and adjectives (Zinsser 2006). Adjectives and adverbs sprinkle paper with unnecessary clutter. This clutter does not convey information but distracts and has no point especially in academic writing, say, as opposed to literary prose or poetry.”

           —Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, Scientometrics 2013, Cluttered writing: adjectives and adverbs in academia

“When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

           —Mark Twain, in a letter

Mark wrote a Python script to count what fraction of words were adverbs & adjectives in these texts:

Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (“It was a dark and stormy night”), first chapter:           .117

Jacques Derrida’s Chapter 2 of Of Grammatology, selected for its unreadability:     .139

Zinsser, On Writing Well (advises avoiding adverbs & adjectives):                            .128

Mark Twain’s death-to-adjectives letter:                                                                      .141

Okulicz-Kozaryn, “Cluttered writing: adjectives and adverbs in academia”:                 .158

I don’t know exactly what the Python NLTK module counts as an adverb or adjective. Those all sound high to me. But we see that the three writers complaining about adverbs & adjectives used a lot of them even as they complained about them. (I notice the title of “Cluttered writing” is 50% adjectives.)

One problem with adverbs is that so many of them end in -ly that it gives a repetitive sound to a paragraph, particularly when adverbs end sentences. Erin Brenner claims in When Adverbs Fall Flat that this is the destructive work of eighteenth-century grammarians, who set about converting all non-Latinate English words to -ly forms to make them more like Latin.

When To Show & When To Tell

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It’s traditional at this point to give a list of examples of badly-written tells vs. well-written shows, but that’s cheating. We need to consider real examples of both shows and tells, and figure out what circumstances makes one or the other better. And first we have to have some idea what “showing” and “telling” mean.

One definition is that “showing” means things that could be shown in a movie: bare facts such as setting and events, body language, and facial expressions. “Telling”, respectively, then means describing a character’s thoughts or feelings.

Another interpretation is that “showing” describes things as they happen, while “telling” summarizes them, whether they’re externally-visible events or internal thoughts and feelings. In this view, transitory, sensory feelings are “shows” (“The subway car was hot”), while moods (“Jill had never been so happy”) or attitudes (“The bar was unnaturally quiet. I didn’t like it.”) are tells. Consider this passage from Camus’ The Stranger:

~~~
“A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.

Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver.”
~~~

Camus could have written this:

“His knife glinted in the sun. Sweat blinded me. I pulled the trigger.”

The first passage is all internal monologue and descriptions that are symbolic or impressionistic rather than literal. The sun makes no noise, the knife does not gouge into his eyeballs, there is no gust from the sea, the sky does not crack in two, and no sheet of flame pours from the sky. You couldn’t have shown any of that in a movie, so by the first definition above, it’s all telling. But it’s not summarizing anything; rather, it presents a series of sensory impressions that flash by, after which the narrator discovers the gun has fired, almost on its own. So by the second definition it’s all showing.

The first definition is easier to use, but I think the second is more useful.

A possible third definition, which comes to mind now but I don’t want to edit what I’ve already written, is that “showing” gives the reader clues that they must assemble, while “telling” spells out what the author wants the reader to know. Implication outside the initial scope.

There is a technique where you baldly state how a character feels or what a character thinks about something, and that statement can imply things far beyond the scope of what you wrote. If you’ve ever read ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ you might remember how the style is very simplistic, with Christopher (the main character) telling the reader all sorts of things that other writers might try to show instead, like the things that makes him happy, or his favourite foods, or what might make him sad. The thing is, telling here is not an error, because what the writer was trying to portray subtly is not Christopher’s emotions or his interests. The thing the writer was trying to infer here was Christopher’s simplemindedness, and the relationship he has with other people.

By this definition, that is “telling” us individual things about Christopher, but “showing” the big picture of Christopher that we put together from those things.

The usual formula for showing is that a scene is shown, with some told embellishments. For telling, a passage’s or a sentence’s purpose and critical information may be told, and then rounded out by the details shown, or explained by a shown simile or metaphor (“A spurious unity descended on them, as local and temporary as the gleam that inhabits a firefly”, “He was vexed by opposite currents in his blood, then they blended”). Or showing and telling may mingle freely.

Here are some ideas about what showing and telling do differently:

-Showing is more engaging

But this begs the question: More engaging in what way? This is not a useful theory, because I don’t know what “engaging” means, and because it doesn’t tell us when telling is good. We need an explanation that gives us a test for when to show and when to tell.

-Showing gives more specific images

Consider these pairs:

Jenny was happy. / Jenny skipped down the sidewalk.
Ben was embarrassed. / Ben’s face reddened.
Martha reveled in the joy of creation. / Martha hummed a tune as she passed a long strip of red cloth through her sewing machine

Some say that the showing is more specific than telling. But is it? No; it paints a more specific image, but is more ambiguous about abstract emotion and thought. The examples on the right each give us a visual image, but Jenny may skip while bored or restless, Ben may be hot or angry, and Martha may be looking forward to her hot date with some fireman that evening.

-Telling gives more specific thoughts & feelings

Telling is better when you need us to know exactly what a character is thinking. It’s essential when there’s no way to show what they’re thinking. How could you show that character-A missed Character-B? How could you show that Character-C was thinking back to his time in the sanitarium?

Conversely, showing is better if you want a character’s motives or feelings to be ambiguous, as for instance when describing the actions of a suspect in a mystery.

Showing vs. telling is a trade off of being specific about visual imagery (showing) versus internal thoughts and feelings (telling). These two approaches appeal to different types of people. The kind of person who goes to see movies because they have great special effects and doesn’t care about plot or character will prefer stories that show. The kind of person who prefers fiction about ideas and feelings should be more tolerant of stories with a lot of telling.

I don’t know if that’s the case. Harry Potter has more telling than the idea-laden writings of Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, or even Lahiri’s, which start most paragraphs with a single told summary and then fill it out with shown details. But certainly action scenes need showing, because action is kinetic and visual. And if the statement that telling is more “engaging” means “has more action scenes” (e.g., “Peter Jackson made The Hobbit more engaging”), then showing is more engaging than telling. But I wouldn’t use the word “engaging” that way myself. I found Tolkien’s Hobbit more engaging.

-Summarizing directs focus


An author could show certain things that you would expect to show. For example one could show a character remaining mute while her friends talked, and failing to grasp the conversation. But we can infer many other things from those bare facts, and wandered down many digressing lines of thought. We might have thought the author meant for certain things in that hypothetical scene to be metaphors for something. Summarizing the conversation tells us that they signify nothing and we should ignore them.

-Showing lets you communicate feelings that we don’t understand

That’s a claim I’ll make with Carson McCullers’ book, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. In this book he shows us for three pages what John Singer does, without entering his head and describing his feelings, because Singer does not understand and could not describe his feelings at the time.

We can also use telling to express feelings that aren’t lexicalized, such as “the emotion of wanting something, being ashamed of wanting it, but being unable and to an extent unwilling to give up that want”, or “the admixture of melancholy and nostalgia which happens when you return to a place you haven’t been for a very long time and see the fragments of your past life scattered and decontextualized, familiar yet foreign”.

If you understand what you’re trying to get across well enough to summarize it, then you could tell it, probably in many fewer words. But to do that, you need to analyze that feeling, and you risk getting it wrong, because:

-Telling states an opinion; showing pretends to reserve judgement

This is a point I really want to make here. Good authors deal with things that they don’t entirely understand, and if they tried to summarize them, they’d probably get it wrong. A reader can rarely tell whether a long explanation makes sense or is possible in the real world, but can easily tell when characters act unrealistically. Showing keeps the author honest.

Jorges Luis Borges argues the opposite in his short stories “Funes the Memorious” (a man who remembers so many details about everything that he understands nothing) and “The Immortal”:

[Excerpt from The Immortal]
“I reflected that Argos and I lived our lives in separate universes; I reflected that our perceptions were identical but that Argos combined them differently than I, constructed them from different objects; I reflected that perhaps for him there were no objects, but rather a constant, dizzying play of swift impressions. I imagined a world without memory, without time; I toyed with the possibility of a language that had no nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable adjectives.… I asked Argos how much of the Odyssey he knew. He found using Greek difficult; I had to repeat the question.

Very little, he replied. Less than the meagerest rhapsode. It has been 1100 years since last I wrote it.
… [several pages of detailed show-don’t-tell autobiography intervene]
A year has passed, and I reread these pages. I can attest that they do not stray beyond the bounds of truth, although… I believe I detect a certain falseness. That is due, perhaps, to an overemployment of circumstantial details, a way of writing that I learned from the poets; it is a procedure that infects everything with falseness, since there may be a wealth of details in the event, yet not in memory.”
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Borges seems to be saying that telling is less truthful because it presents too many distracting details (and says something similar in “Funes”). I am saying that summarizing—choosing which details to keep and which to throw out—is the main source of falseness. I could argue that the purpose of literature is to pursue arguments that are too complex for humans to reason about logically. Writers who summarize will inevitably get some of it wrong.

-Telling invokes conscious reasoning; showing bypasses it


One might imagine that it would be more difficult to write propaganda using showy language, if it is more honest. This is not the case. Triumph of the Will is imagistic and therefore showy. While showy language does not distort what it presents, the person who chooses what is shown can still control its message. Telling risks being false by making a logical mistake, but it states its opinions explicitly, putting the reader on alert. Showing risks being false by choosing a misrepresentative set of things to show, and can slip lies by the reader more easily because it never gives them a chance to argue.

-Telling gives information; showing makes the reader work for it

Showing the reader pieces of information that they must piece together may be more satisfying to them. Have you read a mystery where the solution comes entirely from one critical piece of information? I hate that. The more different pieces of information that come together to form the solution, the better the mystery.

The theory is that this operates in all forms of fiction, and readers enjoy / are more engaged with stories when they have to work harder to understand them. I think, though, it may be more important that conclusions they draw for themselves are more convincing than ones they are told.

-Showing is masculine / sociopathic; telling is feminine

Stereotypically, women like to talk about feelings, and men do not. Romance novels are overstuffed with long telly monologues. Pornography only shows.

Hemingway seldom talks about his heroes’ feelings. In Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, the narrator tells us that Chili (“chill”) Palmer, the hero, is a man to whom right action is instinctive. He doesn’t dwell on things. When a woman wants to sleep with him, he is neither surprised nor excited, and doesn’t wonder why. He acts in ways that would seem to require planning ahead, yet we never see him plan ahead. He is behaviorally conditioned by life on the streets so that he acts immediately and impulsively in the correct way, whether this is punching or shooting a man at the right time, or leaving the key to a locker full of drug money outside the airport before going in to examine it. A rich internal life would only trip him up. And Leonard uses Chili’s voice as the narrator’s voice regardless of which character’s point-of-view he’s in.

You can see something similar in Camus’ The Stranger, whose main character claims not to have strong feelings, and who is supposed to represent the human condition (but appears to me to deliberately misrepresent it). Camus wrote The Stranger in first person so that we could get inside the narrator’s head and verify that he is unaware of having normal feelings. The story shows the narrator’s actions throughout events that should be charged with emotion (his mother’s death, a sexual romance, a killing). Even with his interior monologue, he has only sensory impressions that he can never translate into the expected emotions.

Anthony Burgess’ narrator in A Clockwork Orange, by contrast, is a different kind of sociopath, one who feels intense emotions, but doesn’t care about the feelings of strangers. His life is ultra-”masculine”: He is a gang leader who thinks only of status, sex, and violence. So his narration is mostly showing, though he sometimes uses adverbs to tell us how much he enjoys “the old ultra-violence”.

-Showing is remote; telling is intimate

This is a generalization of “Showing is masculine”. This could be a reason for the showing in that same scene from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Showing Singer from the outside moves us further away from him, which might be appropriate because of spoiler-ish plot issues. In the excerpt from The Stranger above, the narrator doesn’t “pull the trigger”; he watches his grip close on the revolver, as if from a distance, moving himself outside of his body. Telling, conversely, draws us in closer to a character’s point of view.

-Showing is slow; telling is fast

“Nobody wasted their breath pretending to feel very sad about the Riddles, for they had been most unpopular. Elderly Mr. and Mrs. Riddle had been rich, snobbish, and rude, and their grown-up son, Tom, had been, if anything, worse.”

— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

In many great novels, things are told mostly when they would be difficult or time-consuming to show. Here we’re learning backstory. Back story is, by definition, not the story, and can usually be summarized.

Stories and Non-Stories: What’s The Difference?

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In 335 BCE, Aristotle kicked off literary theory by writing,
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“Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements used separately in the various parts of the play and represented by people acting and not by narration, accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.”
_____

(Did you notice the origin of “Show, don’t tell” is in that quote?)

Today we’d say that much of what Aristotle said about tragedy and comedy was, well, wrong. But it’s more useful than a lot of later theories, because Aristotle was also something of a logician and an ontologist, and tried to define drama in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

The problem with later literary theories is that they were developed by non-logicians looking at famous literary works and trying to come up with things they all had in common. It’s like trying to define “bird” by looking at a hundred different birds, and coming up with, “X is a bird if X has wings.” You didn’t look at airplanes or bats or beetles, so you didn’t realize that having wings is necessary but not sufficient.

For instance, Aristotle says that a story’s protagonist must be virtuous, as people do not want a story about “villains making fortune from misery”. Later literary theories fail to mention this point! Every later theory I can think of would happily accept a story in which the protagonist was morally repugnant, and “grew” by “learning” a new way to exploit people. Hell, they even gave a Pulitzer to one such story, A Confederacy of Dunces.

(Let’s get this clear up front: When I talk about whether something is a story, I don’t mean whether it satisfies anybody’s definition of a story. I mean whether it feels to me like a dramatic story. A Confederacy of Dunces does not feel to me like a dramatic story. I’d call it a very long crack-fiction. Regardless, I’m not counting comedy in my definition of story. Like poems and songs, comedy is probably different enough to get its own rules.)

So it’s easy to write something that satisfies most theories about what a story is, and find when you’re done that it isn’t a story.

Here are some other common kinds of narratives that look like stories if you compare them to a “Hero’s Journey” or other checklist, but are not:

– Stories that wrap up the plot, but don’t then relate that plot resolution to larger character issues.
– Stories in which the theme is told rather than shown.
– Stories in which the character does the right things for the wrong reasons. Take the scene in Return of the Jedi where (spoiler alert!) Darth Vader saves Luke from the Emperor. Suppose that what really happened is that Vader had just remembered that the Emperor was a big jerk and kept threatening to kill him, and this was a nice chance to off him and rule the galaxy. That wouldn’t be a story.
– Stories in which the character already knows the thing she’s supposed to be learning. Suppose Ebenezer Scrooge were a generous soul who loved Christmas at the start of “A Christmas Carol”. Not a story.
– Stories which pass the protagonist ball for a single character arc. Suppose that in The Old Man and the Sea, the old man had hired a tourist to go out and catch a really big fish for him. And then suppose that the tourist tried and tried and was finally able to catch the fish because his fishing guide finally overcame his fear of shiny pointy things and attached a real fish-hook to the end of the line. One person had a problem; another tried to solve it; a third grew in a way that allowed it to be solved. The tourist doesn’t know what the old man’s problem is, and never discovers that he’d been fishing without a hook all this time. The protagonist’s character arc is split across three people. No one person experiences the entire arc.

I don’t know if a story has to have a moral lesson, but most of the great ones have some kind of lesson.

For a better understanding of what is and is not a story, we’ll have to dig deeper than the formula of “character X grows to overcome a problem”, and probably talk about morality.

[1] Necessary and sufficient conditions are now known to be insufficient to define natural linguistic terms. This was discovered by philosophers in the 1930s, then by anthropologists and linguists in the 1960s, and then by artificial intelligence researchers in the 1990s, all independently of each other, because people are stupid that way.

[2] The specific point of the virtue of the protagonist may be overlooked because it isn’t fashionable anymore to reference morality in literary theory. If, and I would argue that it is, stories are morals, this causes problems for modern literary theory.

Romance Novels and POV Switches

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I’ve been branching out to genres I’m not as familiar with. I am currently going through romance and have been listening to a romance novel by Nora Roberts on CD, to learn what romance novels are like and how they’re told. I can’t say I’m a fan yet. She does some things that look like novice mistakes, like opening with an entire chapter of interior-monologue-infodump about the main character’s life history, and always telling us what everyone is thinking as soon as they think it, never letting us wonder for a minute what a comment or gesture meant.

(Listening on CD is great, because it has a lot of descriptive passages that sound better read out loud, but that I wouldn’t have the patience for on the page. I’d be skipping ahead to see what happened instead of lingering over the brickwork in an arch.)

One of the things that drove me crazy was the POV switches. I’m not a big fan of telling the reader what everyone is thinking. You can’t really get inside a person’s head unless you share their suspense, and their suspense in romance novels is mostly about what the other character is thinking about them. I don’t like rapid POV switches, but I especially dislike inconsistently timed POV switches. Sometimes the story goes on for chapters in a single POV, then has multiple POV switches in a single chapter.

I eventually got to the scene where the hero and heroine get it on. I had to admire how she wrote it. It’s probably softcore by any standards, but it told you how they were both feeling (and what they were feeling, and how they were positioned) without any words or phrases like “shaft” or “tunnel of love”.

Also, it was full of POV switches. And it was right. And I suddenly (sorry, Elmore Leonard!) understood what all those POV switches were for:

In non-romance stories, POV switches usually happen when switching to a different scene, especially one that the first POV character isn’t present for. POV switches in the few romances I’ve read may happen within a single scene, with both characters still present.

The POV switch is a meta-textual interaction between the characters.

The novel is like a dialogue between the two main characters, and the length of time each one holds the POV before relinquishing it to the other is like the length of time that one person speaks before letting someone else talk. People who are closer have more give and take in their conversations, butting in on each other, telling stories jointly, even finishing each other’s sentences. So more rapid POV switches indicate the characters are closer together. (They may be fighting, but they’re more involved with each other.) And when they make love, we see through the eyes of one and then the other in rapid succession, their perceptions almost merging into each other, as they approach as near as humans can to being two minds sharing a single consciousness.

Or at least that’s how I interpreted what romance POV switches signified.

Geography of a Story

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I recently listened to Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin say something interesting in their ScriptNotes podcast on Follies, Kindles and Second-Act Malaise:
Geography symbolizes story.

They didn’t say it that way, but John said that one of the things that bothered him about the Broadway play Follies was returning to the same stage sets, and that doing so made him feel like the story wasn’t progressing. Craig talked about Star Wars: You can return to a set if it’s a vehicle, like the Millenium Falcon, that’s going places, and you can return to a set if it has been destroyed to prove that you can’t go back (Luke returning to his foster parents’ house and seeing their burnt skeletons outside its wreckage).

Craig mentioned Casablanca as a counterexample, and I immediately came up with my own list of counterexamples: Death of a Salesman takes place almost entirely in the family house. The “third act” of Jaws stays on the boat. Night of the Living Dead takes place in one room. So do Rear Window, Wait Until Dark, My Dinner with Andre, and The Breakfast Club. Marty McFly returns over and over again to his hometown in the Back to the Future movies. Characters return to where they started in The Hobbit and Toy Story.

My Dinner with Andre and The Breakfast Club are oddities because the “journeys” the characters are taking are not physical. But the others all turn out to be exceptions that prove the rule. (That’s what the phrase really means: You make a rule, and you find exceptions, and then you discover that the reasoning behind the rule also explains the exceptions.) 

Casablanca, Death of a Salesman, Jaws, Night of the Living Dead, Rear Window, and Wait Until Dark all have something in common: The people in the story are trapped. The boat, the house surrounded by zombies, and the apartments are all death traps. Everyone in Rick’s Cafe is trapped there and trying to escape. The characters in Death of a Salesman are trapped in the house by the mortgage and the refrigerator payments, just as they’re trapped in their small lives by Willy’s deluded faith in the power of friendship and of being liked. The characters return to or stay in the same scene to show that they’re trapped.

Marty keeps returning to his hometown, but in different time periods and alternate universes, so that it’s a strange and alien place. The changes he discovers in it are the plot. The Hobbit and Toy Story have triumphant returns, where the victory is for the protagonists to be able to return, and to show how much they’ve grown after doing so.

So in each case, physical movement symbolizes what’s happening in the story. It appears, then, that you shouldn’t send characters back to an earlier location just because the plot demands it; change or stasis in physical location must symbolize change or stasis in the character’s situation. That means you shouldn’t write a story like this:

_____
Act I: Penny leaves her dress making business in Snoozeville and goes to Excitement City to meet a big distributor who will help her establish a boring but lucrative line of executive leisure suits in Excitement City
Act II: Penny returns to Snoozeville to sew a bunch of suits.
Act III: Penny goes to Excitement City with the new suits, suddenly realizes that she hates suits, and dumps them into a shredder, The End.
____

Act II is “wrong” because Penny is returning to Snoozeville physically, but story-wise, she is moving away from Snoozeville. Act III is “wrong” because she is still in Excitement City physically, but has returned to the dress-making business that she began with, and so should end up where she began physically.

Maybe screenwriters think about this consciously. I never have. But I thought it was interesting.

Writing vs Computer Programming

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Structurally, writing is like computer programming.

A story has the same hierarchical structure, the same complex inter-dependencies, as a program. Both require a big toolkit of patterns and structures, an intuitive sense of which ones are right for which project, the ability to estimate how big the different parts should be, and an awareness of common errors and pitfalls. And the more you write, the more you can just dive in and start hacking in ways that would lead a beginner into disaster.

But computer programming never fills me with doubt and self-loathing (other than self-loathing for being a computer programmer). I don’t get programmer’s block. I don’t sit back and look at my program and ask, “Why did I write this? Does this mean anything to anyone else?” I don’t say, “That’s it. I will never be able to write another computer program.”

And writing gives me a joy that programming doesn’t approach, maybe never approached. I used to love programming. Could writing one day bore me as much as programming does now? It’s a scary thought, but on reflection not one that really matters. Joy now is still joy, right?

Now that I think about it, programming gave me joy when I wrote programs that gave other people joy. Games, stories. Linear discriminant analysis, not so much. The medium isn’t the message.

What are your favorite analogies for writing?