All writers have heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of the most ambiguous and frustrating pieces of writing advice I have ever received. After all, writing is all about words. How can you “show” something when the only way to communicate is by “telling” the reader what’s happening? You’re also supposed to make sure something is always happening to move the scene forward. You don’t start in a static or simple moment. You have to begin with a bang to get the reader’s attention! Where’s your momentum, people?
Now, I get what this advice is trying to say. “Show, don’t tell” encourages writers to not just give a play-by-play of the scene, a “Then she did this and then he said that and then they went here” style of story-telling. That’s acceptable for a four-year-old telling a story, but not for a novelist. You’re supposed to make it more dynamic, fluid, and engaging. And starting with a bang isn’t literal, but to avoid the cliche of having a character wake up in the morning or monologue to themselves. The devil, as always, is in the details of how exactly to do this.
It’s easy to then fall into the trap of thinking that these are iron-clad rules which cannot for the love of all that is literary be broken. Rules are useful as a framework, but it’s always nice to see how the rules can be bent or outright broken and still leave you with an engaging story. Enter the Foreigner series by C. J. Cherryh.
They say that timing is everything. While it may vary in prominence and importance for a story, it’s always a good idea for a writer to know how long it takes for things to happen. Having the ages of characters and timeline of events written down and referenced periodically during the rewriting process will help you maintain both continuity and pacing.
Note that I said, “during the rewriting process.” Timelines and continuity checks are part of the many cycles of editing. Unless you are one of those ultra-detailed planners who lays all of the groundwork before picking up a pen, a timeline isn’t something you should be using until after at least the first draft is complete.
For example, when I write, I usually have a month or so of planning where I pull together a basic plot line, character descriptions, and overall tone of the work. In the character descriptions, I put at least an estimate of how old they are supposed to be. This can fluctuate later, but usually only within a few years of the initial age-setting. As I write my first draft, I have a rough idea of how much time passes between events. It’s a day or two from their initial meeting to their first fight, a week until their marriage, a few hours until that important breakfast, and they spend two or three months in this locale. These aren’t set in stone, nor do they have to be 100% accurate at this stage. In Draft 1, it doesn’t matter so much if I say it only took a week to travel 200 miles on foot or something like that. All I need are estimates, if that, to give a basic temporal framework. Continue reading “Temporal Frameworks”→
Recently, a friend and fellow writer told me they felt discouraged about writing. They were upset about so many people being unable to spot the differences between a good story and a bad story. Real gems languish in dusty corners while insults to the English language fly off the shelves. And not just books, but movies too. Their question was: “If people can’t tell the difference between good and bad stories, why put forth the effort of crafting a really good story?” Thinking out the rules of the world, creating three-dimensional characters, filling plot holes to make a seamless narrative…all of that takes work. And if people don’t notice and don’t care, then why bother?