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Monday, August 11, 2014

Engaging scenes versus bland narration

Sometimes you critique someone else's story and gain an important perspective on your own.

In my local, real-life, face-to-face critique group, I found myself staring at a short story that just wasn't gelling, and I couldn't figure out why. The whole time I was reading, it felt as if I were handling the story with rubber gloves, and I couldn't feel a thing.

Eventually I nailed it: a subtler version of show-don't-tell. The author was showing everything just fine, but we weren't actually in the scene. I'm going to call that "straight narration."

Here's an example (not that writer's story):

I went into the coffee shop, a dilapidated afterthought wedged between the hardware store and the shoe repair shop. I ordered my usual coffee and made small talk until it was time to hand over my ninety-five cents. It hadn't yet begun to rain.

It's okay. There's no telling, and you're pretty clear on what's happening, but…well, yeah. Now we're going to try the same scene in what I call "scene-building" as opposed to straight narration:

The door creaked like a ninety-year-old man's knees as I made my way into the coffee shop. "Hey, Henry." The owner didn't even look up, just started pouring coffee into a paper cup, no sugar, extra cream.

I said, "I want a soy hazelnut decaf latte with a shot of strawberry sauce."

Henry snorted. "Of course you do." He popped the lid on the cup, and I handed him ninety-five cents, then shoved a buck in the tip jar. "You got an umbrella?" Henry said. "Don't water down my damn coffee."

I made my way back up the narrow aisle between the counter and the wall. "It's not going to rain," I said. "Not for a couple hours."

It takes up a larger footprint (and please note that I killed a darling in transition,) but once you've got the actual dialogue and the action motions, suddenly the characters begin revealing themselves. The characters start making word choices, decisions about their motions, and they relate to each other. Oh -- now there's something interesting. Because if the POV character had walked in and said, "Give me a black coffee, medium!" then you've got a different character from a POV character who walks in and says, "Um, excuse me, Henry? Would it be okay if I had a coffee with two sugars and one cream please?"

The characters choose what to tell the reader and then the characters reveal themselves piecemeal in the details of the way they behave. Think about it: that's how you live your life, piecing together information about everyone you meet from their micro-choices about how to speak, how to act, how to move.

The writer is in control in the straight narration -- yes, even though it's first person. The writer has chosen what to tell you and when to say it and inserted her opinion about the surroundings. In scene building, the characters are in control and the writer fades into nothing. Which, arguably, is what we want in the current climate.

But overall, a story composed entirely of straight narration will leave readers feeling as if we're handling the text with rubber gloves. It's all right there, and there's nothing wrong with it, but we can't feel a thing.

That's not to say you should never use straight narration techniques, but use them consciously. When you want to create a sense of numbness, that's an excellent method. But even more, check out this moment, from Jane Austen:
Elizabeth was much too embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.
The narrator has been all up in everyone's business for at least 250 pages. Why, then, at this point, does she omit Elizabeth's response to Darcy's proposal? Instead of the actual dialogue, Elizabeth "gave him to understand"that she loves him and accepts his proposal. In this case, I'm convinced it's respect: Austen has shown us these characters at their best and worst and most human, and now she's doing the equivalent of closing the door and letting us imagine Elizabeth's "giving him to understand" in whatever way we want. Moreover, she's giving us a sense of Elizabeth's joyfully incoherence and loss of her capacity for words.

Do that. Take your narrative distance and leverage it as one of the many tools in your writing arsenal. Make it work for your story. Get close to your characters. Get further away from your characters. Carry your readers along with you, and your story will love you for it.

 Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or crocheting inappropriate objects. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 


Cordelia Dinsmore said...

Thanks. This is great advice and you've done it with amazing clarity so even I get it. Love the dialog, by the way. It left me wanting more!

Julie Musil said...

This post made me want to watch Pride and Prejudice. AGAIN! (Colin Firth version)

Thanks for the great tips!

Unknown said...

thanks :)

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

Oh, this was fantastic, Jane!

Reese said...

Why is everybody so obsessed with the concept of "Show-don't-Tell"? There is room for both! In fact, as you pointed out, there is room in 'good' writing for both types of showing you have illustrated.

In the examples you present, the first example sounds like an opening to a cheap detective novel. In fact, I could almost hear Bogart reciting those lines. Granted, if an entire work were written in such a dead-pan, flat style, 97% of readers would never make it to the end. But, in measured doses, to give a sense of character, it can be made to work.

In the second illustration, there is certainly a lot more energy and personality. It nicely shows the relationship between the two characters and, without saying so, indicates (shows) a long-standing relationship between the two.

Likewise, however, telling is not a capital offense and should not be deemed as such. The ratio of show vs. tell is going to be different from one book to the next and from one genre to another but so many people have reached a point where they seem to believe that telling is eternally a 'bad' thing and, in bending over backwards to avoid it, one will often end up with a lackluster, flat, emotionless version of show which can be far worse than a little bit of telling.

To borrow your own words, "Make it work for your story. Get close to your characters. Get further away from your characters. Carry your readers along with you, and your [readers] will love you for it." In other words, use ALL of the tools in your arsenal. They are all useful and are there for a reason. USE THEM!