Monday, September 24, 2012

Physical Telling (part 2): Making it Disappear


In writing, you can’t just follow one set of rules. It has to live, breathe on the page.

-Brittany Howard, Corvisiero Agency

 

It’s apparent by the huge response we had to Action Speaks Louder Than Body Parts (Dan Krokos even read and tweeted about it, guys!), writers really struggle with the “Show Don’t Tell” phrase we hear around every corner.  After writing that post, I got to thinking: the use of body parts isn’t what bothers me per se; it’s their overuse.

And I understand why.

As writers, we’re told don’t state emotion. So we’ve learned to show emotion: Instead of saying Joe is angry, we show his face deepening in color; instead of Sam telling the reader he’s scared, he tells us his heart is racing or maybe goes a step further and says it with flare like his heart is slamming like a jackhammer in his chest. And these are all decent examples of “show don’t tell,” but lately it seems like characters are shivering and shrugging and biting their lips on every page. Narrowing eyes, wrinkling brows, scrunching noses…

Again, not bad examples of showing, but when there’s a laundry list of what the eyes/stomachs/feet/hands are doing as a character reacts to something, they really start to pop off the page.

 

The trick

is to use

a variety of techniques

in showing character emotion/reaction

that not one stands out.

 

One technique? Make them disappear. Like this example I pulled from Courtney Summers’ Cracked Up to Be where the MC, Parker, is reacting to a funeral-like school assembly for another student:

 

I inhale. How can the auditorium be only half full and have all the air gone from it like that? I’m not getting any air. As students continue to mill into the auditorium, it gets smaller and smaller and my heart beats this insane rhythm in my chest. I rub my palms on my skirt. They’re sweaty. I really can’t breathe. No, I can.

I just think I can’t.

 

Now, I know what you’re thinking—there’s telling in there. And physical telling! Heart beating, sweaty palms…

You’re absolutely right. But let me explain. There’s a sentence in this example that stands out over the others. One that paints a picture. That connects us emotionally to Parker, makes us feel what she’s feeling. Go back and look.

Did you spot it?

To me the paragraph looks like this:

 

I inhale. How can the auditorium be only half full and have all the air gone from it like that? I’m not getting any air. As students continue to mill into the auditorium, it gets smaller and smaller and my heart beats this insane rhythm in my chest. I rub my palms on my skirt. They’re sweaty. I really can’t breathe. No, I can.

I just think I can’t.

 

One sentence, so emotionally jolting, is all it took for the telling to melt off the page. To me, these are the most powerful types of sentences. They pull me (as a reader) deeper, make the real world fade away because suddenly I am this character and I’m feeling what she’s feeling, thinking what she’s thinking. These are the words, as Brittany said above, that breathe.

Here’s another one. Again from Courtney Summers (can you tell I’m a CS fan?) in Fall for Anything where Eddie is reacting to a memory of her late father:

 

I lean my head back and close my eyes. The chair is falling apart because he wore it down, got it to fit him perfectly. He refused to throw it out and now I’m trying hard to belong to the space he left behind, but I’m awkward and small and I don’t.

 

Not even a full sentence this time and I’m tugged from the inside. True there’s no telling here, but a few lines down is this: The door creaks open. My heart stops. and it doesn’t matter because the potent line from above is still burrowing deep. Poor, poor Eddie.

These sentences are what make a character memorable. Unforgettable. Sometimes even haunting; the type of character that sticks with you long after the book’s cover creaks closed.

Instead of another published example, I want to share one from my work, Fragile Line (currently out on sub with my agent), so you can see my thought process as the MC, Ellie, reacts to seeing her ex-boyfriend after a catastrophic split:

 

Shane pulls me in. My arms surround his body. I still know every dip and ridge, every muscle and bone. I don’t find them now, but I think about them, how it would feel to run my fingers along them.

 

Ellie could easily think how desperately she wants to touch him, or internally say something like God, I’ve missed him so much (which would be character telling), but instead I attempted to paint a picture with her thoughts, with the struggle and longing she feels in the presence of Shane. With that, it’s in your face that she still wants him without actually saying it. Sure there’re filters in there (know, think, feel) but did you notice? No? That’s because Ellie’s thought prevails, masks them, connects you to her on a profounder level.

 

What you need to remember is this: using a wide range of techniques is key.  This is just one. Next time I’ll show you another. 

2 comments:

  1. Really great post furthering your initial one on this subject. Have found it very useful when applying to my writing. Thank you for sharing it.

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  2. Great post. I used to think visceral reactions were the only way to show reaction, but then I realized they aren't the ones that make me cry when I read a story. It's the non-telling thoughts that do it for me every time.

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