Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Creative Writing Tips - Show - don't - Tell

The dreaded words all authors hate...Your work is passive.  You tell not show.  What do 'they' mean?  Basically, you are telling a story not allowing the action to happen.  This can be righted by using an active voice, but not always, you also need to write what you see.

  Two deadly words to an active voice are, 'was' and 'were'.  As in the following:

'Richard was hanging his coat on the hook when the door opened and Polly came in, angrily.'

'was hanging' is telling, it is using a passive voice. We are being told what Richard is doing. His action is being described to us.  As is Polly's mood.

Adverbs join, was and were, on our sins list.  If we use them, we are going into describe mode, as in 'angrily'. 

You can recognise these words by their ending.  Most end in, 'ly'.  If they are in your work, you are describing.

Compare the last sentence with the same scene in an active voice:

'Richard hung his coat on the hook. The door opened and Polly stomped in.'

'hung' is still a variation on the past tense of the verb, to hang, but its use in this context gives your writing an active voice.  Richard was hanging, is a passive voice, Richard hung, is active because we are not being told and we are subconciously carring out the action with him. Polly also has an action which indicates her mood.  We are not told she is angry we know by her action.

Why is it so important to show not tell?  Well, active writing is less boring.  It raises the pace and the tension.  It evokes the readers own senses.  With the second take on the scene, we invoke a feeling, a tapping into, the atmosphere.  In the first we sit there being told what the two people are doing and feeling. 

Feeling is only one of the senses we want to evoke.  We want our readers to see, hear, taste and smell what we write.  We cannot do this when we are describing these sensations as something that is happening to one of our characters.

This following scene is told:

The chips were going down really well, they tasted nice.  John was enjoying them.  They made him think of lovely seaside holidays.

Okay, but we haven't felt anything or tasted anything or had our own memories come to us.  We have been told that John did.

Let's analyse what is going on:

There is a man.  He is eating chips.  How do they taste?  What will be the sensation of them on the mouth?  Will they be hot, cold, undercooked, have salt and vinegar on them?  What will we see?  Steam, long thin fried potato pieces, newspaper, if this is a scene set years ago, or plastic carton and fork if a modern day scene.  What will we smell, well that doesn't have to be listed we all know that smell.  How can we convey all or some of this?

Well first of all by doing the above analysis of the scene we have created a draft version of it.  In it we have listed what is happening, now we want to write a scene that evokes all those senses in our reader as they sit and read.  We can't include everything, although we must do so in our draft to help us to have all the senses happening inside ourselves.  Then we brainstorm the scene.  This is what I came up with:

Unfolding the grease-soaked newspaper released an aroma that teased John’s taste buds. Holding a hot chip between his teeth turned his breath to steam. Vinegar mixed with salt dripped onto his tongue.  Biting released a flavour that opened memories of happier times – seaside holidays, carefree days... 

This scene gives the taste and with it comes the smell, although we haven't mentioned that.  The memories are not mentioned, just that there are some.  The next scene will be the one to visit those if they are important.  For now the reader will have his own memories evoked.  Haven't you had yours?  Everyone, well that is, everyone in Britain, will have something that connects to eating chips as a take away.  Elsewhere in the world you may have to substitute chips for whatever you most buy as a take away and eat in the streets or at the seaside or fairground etc...   

The following is a passive description of a dramatic moment.

Mary sat lazily dreaming on the beach.  She was letting handsfull of sand trickle through her fingers.  A dog barked playfully in the background.  It wasn't until the sound came nearer and aggitated that she felt an alarmingly tickle of fear creep frightenly through her.  She smelt a strange burning smell.  A girls screams filled the air, easily blocking out the barking dog.  Mary turned but could see nothing.  The screaming was happening over the ridge of stones.  Should she risk standing up?  What was happening? 

Do you feel tense, is your pulse quickening?  I doubt it.

Can you up the tension?  Have a go and email me, mary.wood18@yahoo.co.uk with your results.  I will edit two chapters of your book for you, if you manage to.

This competition is now closed.  Melanie Comley (a follower)and Michelle Hanstock of Rugby, Warwickshire, both won a free edit.  

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