Friday, December 28, 2018

Telling It Like It Is

The most common mistake made by storytellers at all levels of ability has one, if not the most simple, solution.

The mistake is the "tell," the infraction made famous by its position in the mantra "Show, don't tell."

Most sentences in stories that begin with "It" are tells. It was cold. It was dark. It was late. Sentences that begin with "It" serve as illustrations of the problem and the source of the problem.

The problem, known among veteran fiction editors as "authorial intervention" or "AI," centers on the writer's choice to intervene with the equivalent of a stage direction, those scenery- and setting-related notes found in stage plays and screenplays.

The solution to the "It" problem is to filter the information, the coldness, darkness, and lateness of the previous examples through the senses of the individual from whose point-of-view the scene plays forth. Here's Mary to demonstrate the "It" situations. 

Mary buttoned her jacket against the cold.  Mary wished she'd worn more substantial clothing.

Notice how, in the first example, Mary feels the cold, which is no longer told, is in fact demonstrated. In the second example, Mary shows her abilities by reacting to the cold without so much as a direct mention of it.

Here's Fred to perform dark for us.

Fred stumbled on a rut in the road he hadn't seen in the darkness.  Once he entered the cellar, Fred needed to use the flashlight on his cellphone to locate the light switch.

In the first example, Fred stumbles as a direct consequence of the darkness. Next sentence shows Fred using some ingenuity to find a light switch that either will or will not make the cellar easier to navigate. Even if the light switch doesn't provide useful light, Fred still has a source available to deal with the darkness. Note how the darkness was present in the second sentence without being named by Fred or the writer.

Mary did so well her last time out, let's see how she does with "late."

Already aware she was reaching the limits of acceptable lateness, Mary boarded the bus without checking to see if it was the right one.  Now she'd have to suffer the consequences of a father who valued promptness more than anything else.

These examples of cold, dark, and late all bring in other information, which comes through the filter of the character. Note the absence of authorial presence.

Some--but by no means all--added examples of tells:

She was glad.                                         He would never do such a thing.
He resented the implication.             She yearned for a job like that.
She was willing to share.                    He felt betrayed.
He wanted all of it for himself.          He envied Fred.
She decided not to accept.                  She felt uncomfortable, compromised.

All these examples, potentially valid, can be brought out of the sidelines of stage direction and transferred into story points.  

Consider these:  Story is dramatic action rather than expository description. Each of the recent examples describes an action.

There are three basic actions in story: (1) Narrative, which is a choice of verbs to portray movement (2) Interior Monologue, which is the internal conversation the character has while performing (3) Dialogue, which is what the character says to other characters, often in modified or direct contrast to what the character wants and believes.

Anything "else" is a stage direction or footnote. 

The "simple" solution to this condition: Move the "else" to 1, 2, or 3.

The "simple" way to accomplish this: (1) Stop writing for the Reader. (2) Start writing for the Characters.

If you write for the Reader, you put yourself in the mode of explaining the story (and you know how you get when others go on about explaining things to you).

If you write for the Characters, you allow the Reader to do the thing they most enjoy--which is to eavesdrop, then form their own conclusions.