Category Archives: Character

The Art of Implication or Show Don’t Tell is for Losers

I’m a fervent believer in the old adage Show Don’t Tell. We’ve all heard it. We all hate it. We all know it’s essential for good fiction — the writer’s Golden Rule. It reminds us that simply telling a story isn’t enough. We have to bring the story alive through choice details that make the simple statement redundant and useless.

So, why do I say that it’s for losers?

Because, lately, I’ve come to realize that the adage doesn’t do the work. I’ve been reading a lot of works in progress by unpublished writers, and I repeatedly come across the same issue. It’s an issue, I myself, have to deal with. It’s not that we’re bad writers. It’s not that we don’t know the adage and put it to good use. The issue is that we don’t use it as widely or was deeply as we should.

First, lets look at the adage itself. Show Don’t Tell only mentions one of the senses. While our mentors might mean to use all the senses, it’s not evident in the statement — and as we all know, words are powerful things. They work on us even at a subconscious level, and the amount of times new writers forget about the other four (or five depending on the story you’re telling) backs me up. As many of us have heard before, genre fiction is immersive. Our readers don’t just read the worlds we create. They live in them. If we were writing scripts, showing the world might be enough. But novel and short story writers must use every sense to make their worlds real. Readers must smell the newly turned earth of the farmer’s field, taste the smoke of the soldier’s recently exploded bunker, feel the slick sweat of the rebel about to be put to the question.

Second, the adage doesn’t encompass the most important aspect of putting across a powerful story — emotion. You can’t show emotion with any power anymore than you can tell it. For example, showing a facial expression is about as informative as just saying that someone’s happy. And depending on how it’s carried off, saying that someone’s happy is easier to understand. But you can imply emotion. When we describe the smell of our farmer’s new turned earth, we imply the satisfaction of the fruits of a plowed field. When we describe the feel of our rebel’s slick sweat as he awaits his torture, we feel his terror, his discomfort. Emotion, my friends, is the universal language. A reader may not understand a character’s political or religious views. They may not understand how a character’s background may motivate their actions, but they will understand a character’s emotions. Emotions are the true connective tissue between a character and a reader.

For this reason, I’ve come to think that the adage should actually read Imply Don’t Tell. I mean, that is what we’re talking about when we Show, right?

Which brings us to my third reason that Show Don’t Tell is inadequate. Show Don’t Tell is primarily a tool for narrative. We use it for description. We use it for action. But when was the last time someone told you to Show Don’t Tell a piece of dialogue? Doesn’t really work, does it? And when was the last time you realized, or were told by a reader, that your dialogue is flat, repetitive, overwrought, over-simplistic, or just plain unbelievable? That’s happened to all of us. Great dialogue implies subtext, motive, tension without saying it allowed. Great dialogue implies physical and/or emotional danger. When one character asks a question, the person answering doesn’t give a direct answer. They answer a little to the side, in a round about way. And even when they do answer directly, they do so with loaded words that imply more than they’re saying.

So, I put to you all, when you’re writing or revising and you come across a telling statement, don’t wonder how you can show it. Wonder how you can imply it. For, when you think about it, implication is what we’re best at. We can’t in reality, make other people see what we see, feel what we feel, no matter how good a wordsmith we are. If that’s what you want to do, go become a movie director. Writers can only imply with these paltry things we call words and hope the reader get’s somewhere close to the point. By implication, we leave a few cracks for the reader to fill in the gaps, and that is half the fun of reading.

 

Getting it Right: Character Counts

Six months ago I started a novel, and in that time I’ve written enough words for most books–somewhere in the realm of 185k though 23k now lives in a deleted scenes file–but I’m only just beginning to know my characters. I mean really know them. This might be due in part to my penchant to discovery-write the majority of my story rather than meticulously plan every scene out in advance. I’m a Gardener, not an Architect, and that means I’ll be prone to much more rewriting.

Oh, I know the ending and several key events, who dies, who lives, and a few other elements of the story, but for me, I enjoy the process of discovering the nuances of my characters as I write. As a result, I’ve recently decided to start over. That is to say, I’ve decided to begin my second draft before finishing the first.

It’s not unheard of; David Farland–bestselling author of the Runelords series–has said he writes through the first half of a book then does a rewrite before tackling the second half. Granted, he’s a self-proclaimed Architect, but the practice seems sound in my opinion, especially since I’m doing it for the sake of character. I finally know much more about the motivations of my characters, their voices, how they would actually handle certain situations–which, in some cases, is different from what I wrote originally.

Many authors talk about how it takes them a few thousand words to truly get into the head of their characters–longer for those like myself writing Epic Fantasy since we’re often dealing with multiple POV characters and, depending on needs of the story,significantly larger casts. But it’s extremely important to know your characters. A good plot is important, key scenes that might be depicted in cover art are important, but, when you think about it, what you remember most about every book you’ve ever read or every movie you’ve ever seen are the characters. You remember the Vaders, the Gollums, the Tyrions, the Moiraines.

Every character should be the hero in their own story. Their motivations should make sense even if we as impartial–or even biased–readers disagree with them on a moral level. This is especially true of antagonists who can become flat and one dimensional if they are not at least some variant of gray. My primary antagonist just happens to be one of my favorite POV characters. He also happens to have the most complex motives, and is the main impetus for my decision to rewrite what I’ve already written before pushing on to the end. In many ways, he’s more a protagonist than antagonist in the true sense of the word, though he does work against the main protagonists’ goals.

So how does one accomplish the task of creating memorable characters? It starts with knowing them yourself, as their creator, the writer who gives flesh and blood to the ink of their existence. Learn their habits, their quirks, their wants and desires. This, I’ve come to discover, can only be achieved by writing in their heads for long enough to begin thinking as they think, acting as they act, loving or hating as they do. You must know them as well as you know yourself for ultimately, they are a part of you.

Another way to breathe life into a character is through physical description. I love to people watch, everywhere I go, looking for the tiny idiosyncrasies that make us all unique and which I might be able to apply to my own characters. It might be something simple: a limp, an incessant cough, the way a woman tilts her head when confused or a man clenches his fists when challenged. It could be something more subtle like speech patterns, grammar–or lack thereof–the amount of eye contact one person chooses to give versus another. We are all of us different, and so too should your characters be different from one another.

Perhaps the most important thing is to like your characters, even the antagonists. Robert Jordan used to say his favorite character was whichever one he was writing at any particular moment, something I took to heart. After all, if you don’t care about your characters–even the baddies–no one else will either. Give them something to strive for, something to long for, something that, if they don’t get it, will bring their world crashing down around them.

These are the things I’ve only now, after 180k+ words, discovered about some of my characters, and why I’ve decided to begin draft two of my novel. I was always going to do another draft anyway–perhaps many more since I’m more Gardener than Architect–so I do not feel like I’m going backwards by starting it now. I’ll be building stronger, more memorable characters, and that will go a long way toward getting this novel published. And who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, some other aspiring writer like me will mention Bos Illur in the same sentence as Vader, Gollum, Tyrion and Moiraine. One can only hope!