Thursday, February 21, 2008

Long Scenes---Showing vs. Telling

The showing and telling issue is a never ending battle to do it right. An author has to know when to show and when to tell and when one or the other is too much, especially in lengthy scenes, important but difficult to write. Another author comment appeared that I will answer below. And by the way, I'll be out of town for six days so I will not be blogging until I return. Please enjoy all the information that's available to you, and I'll see you when I get back, talking about another difficult subject----Point of View (POV)

Here's Camille's question:
My biggest problem at the moment is how to make a weekend when the H&H are stuck together that includes 5 hours in a car - twice - pass with the right amount of showing/telling. I need to create the various tensions I have in mind, raise stakes and insert some important backstory during this 'get acquainted' time between them. It's a tough one to know how & when to slow it down, rachet it up and move it forward. It's definitely two days that are shown in detail. So I wonder about how to move things along here?

Large blocks of time dealing with one situation needs careful plotting techniques and creative writing to keep it interesting. Even though what happens in the scene is important, if you drag it on too long it can lose its impact, since readers will be bored. If this is the beginning of your book, I would avoid doing too much with backstory. Backstory is passive and riding in a car is passive so you’re multiple the possible reader boredom by adding backstory at this time. I would let some hints of backstory slip in, if you feel it’s necessary, but otherwise hold off. (Go back to my posts on backstory and how to use it effectively.)

Conflict is needed in this kind of scene, because conflict also brings with it emotion. Since you say they are “stuck” in this situation, the reason might cause tension. Did one character do something to result in this lengthy car ride? Whatever will be the major conflicts in this story can begin or continue to build during the hours together. One blames the other for the circumstances they’re in. One might become sullen and sink into thought or turn on the radio to avoid talking. In scenes like this, you allow time to pass by telling through Jane’s POV introspection, such as: Jane eyed her watch. She’d been listening to his caterwauling choice of music for more than an hour. She closed her eyes wishing to sleep, anything to block out the irritation she felt and the anger she saw in Jeff’s expression.

You can use telling in this way in Jeff’s POV: Jeff’s foot cramped and he lifted his ankle to wiggle his arch. All he needed now was a leg cramp. The trip seemed endless. Another hour passed by, then another, and Jeff finally slapped the steering wheel and pulled off the road. Although this is telling in the form of narration and introspection, it incorporates action. Now Jane will come to attention, questioning why he stopped. He might ask her to drive and she refuses, or he might get out of the car and she sits with her arms folded until she gives up and follows him. So much can happen in this journey.

Whatever you do, keep the conflict growing through dialogue, action or introspection. In this last scenario, do a scene break and move into Jane’s POV. The reader will hear her thoughts and experience her emotion. Something as simple as Jane pointed to a road sign, and said, “We’ve been driving three hours, and you mean to tell me we’re just getting to Jackson?” You’ve used up three hours and the reader knows it, but you said it in dialogue which makes it less passive than narration.

Have the character’s get out of the car and walk through a field of wildflowers or sit in a grove of pines. By doing this you’ll give them some things to do while they talk. She can make a daisy chain or pick petals off a flower. This could be very effective if the plucking indicates she’s saying something like “I hate you. I hate you not,” or the opposite. Jeff might pick a weed and put it between his teeth. They can feel the damp earth and smell the foliage. This opens itself to sense imagery which also adds to the scene rather than smelling gasoline fumes or leather seats.

Be creative and use the senses, emotion and conflict/tension to build a scene that could otherwise easily be slow and draggy to the reader.

See you in a few days.


Anonymous said...

This blog is so helpful. I just love it!!! I have learned so much from this blog about writing novels. I am going to read some of your books.

Camille Cannon (Eide) said...

This is a tremendous help, Gail! You've explained it beautifully. I will be doing some extra plotting for this portion of my story, hopefully strike that balance of action, tension & emotion.

Maybe one of conversations I want them to have that 'tells' his recent off-camera scene (a scene I had to cut for pacing sake) can be a good source of tension because it will bring out a difference of opinion in the two.

That passage of time example to move it along, and the stopping for some action really help. Great thoughts, thank you Gail!

NathanKP said...

This is very good advice. Showing verses telling is something that I have seen advocated before and I have seen it have a very good effect on writing.

NathanKP - The Ink Weaver Collection - Writing Showcase Blog

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Camille and Nathan - Thanks for your comments. I'm pleased that this has helped you see more clearly how to use showing and telling. It is vital to good writing so it's important to master it.