Let’s start with the unsubtle. I’m no expert on all this stuff. In Ogres onions and layers Part 2 I’m merely passing on to you what I’ve learnt to date. There’s so much I don’t know, but I hope I can save you time and tears with these few tips I’ve learnt, if nothing else. Here I focus on fiction writing. Screenplays are constructed differently, although both forms share many of the same tools and techniques.
Saying it without saying it
Or show don’t tell. An effective technique for conveying a character’s thoughts and emotion. Your story is built on scenes of action and reaction. Show a character’s response to an event by how they react, not by telling it. Here’s how Stephen King does it.
‘They’ve all seen that baby trick a thousand times,’ George said, but when he saw the corners of Pete’s mouth tuck down, he tried to soften the blow.
An excerpt from Revival by Stephen King
See how we can read Pete’s disappointment through George’s observation? When you can write at this level, you should be very happy, but yeah, I know, we writers are never happy with our work.
Ogres onions and layers – peeling & exploiting
I’ve mentioned in “Story structure, plotting and free flow” the three plot lines that should run through your story. Plot A is your main plot, setting the scenes, the action and events, and backstory (if you have it). Plot B is the relationship story, and Plot C shows how your character(s) change by the end of the tale.
Exploit each of these to show how emotional response drives your characters to behave as they do, rather than “tell it”.
Once you are past the outlining stage and into the first draft, you will know your characters well enough to anticipate their signature reactions to, for example, praise, criticism, good news and bad news, and you can show these reactions through the decisions and actions they take.
In redrafting, you can develop these moments to give them more impact.
More about show don’t tell
The old chestnut. It amazes me how much fiction out there is filled with boring reportage. An ace storyteller, master or mistress of the page-turner, might get away with it, but the majority of us must make our sentences intriguing and compelling.
James Scott Bell (couldn’t tell you which book of his) has a useful rule of thumb for deciding when to “show” and when to “tell”. He’s devised an “intensity scale” for measuring the emotional heat of a scene (it’s subjective of course).
Scale 5+ if it’s a key emotional or action moment, show it. Make it dramatic.
Scale 5- if it’s information the reader needs to know, but doesn’t warrant the big treatment, would take too long and slow the pace, then tell it.
As a writer, you know you’ll never stop learning, and sometimes the challenge seems overwhelming, but don’t be discouraged. Keep writing. Practice really does make perfect.
Quick Tip: Revisit books by your favourite authors to see how they employ these techniques.
A few “how to” books to help you along:
Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (anything by JSB is worth reading)
Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by the late Nancy Kress (author of Beggars in Spain)
Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King
Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris