Almost every fiction writer knows the golden rule that a story must show, not tell. A lot of nonfiction tells, usually with generalizations. Fiction shows, by using specifics and often setting the story in real time. This allows readers to see and feel the action and conflicts. Then they’re entertained, while having the chance to infer the generalizations.
As I edit book three, I’m constantly vigilant for showing and not telling. I know that a bit of telling is allowed. It often starts chapters, is needed for a brief bit of background and gets readers from A to B. However, for building drama and conflict, I’d better be showing.
If showing is about offering specifics, the real challenge, I find, is choosing which specifics to include. Here are the guideposts I’m currently using.
I write thrillers. My genre is thrillers/mysteries. I’m not aspiring to literary fiction. My readers want the action to flow and that keeps me spare in my use of specifics. For example, increasingly, I avoid describing the colour of clothes that characters wear unless it’s essential to the plot.
Dialogue is powerful. Dialogue of course develops plot and characters. It’s powerful because a lot can be communicated with nuanced choices or absences of words. I rely on dialogue to round out characters economically and even offer specifics I might otherwise exclude. I don’t need to tell readers that a character is a man of few words if I ensure he speaks that way. And when that man is spurred to make a small speech, readers have a clear picture of something that’s important to him.
Is the detail significant? For descriptive passages, I ask myself whether readers really need to know the specifics I give. Some commentators use the term significant detail for specifics. So the question becomes whether the detail is significant enough to include.
Judging this can be trickier than it sounds and takes practice. I try to strip down to their basics the passages that transition between key scenes. However, key scenes must have enough detail for readers to see and feel the action. A good editor will tell me if I’ve gotten it right.
Other considerations may influence a writer’s judgment of what detail is significant. The writer may be more or less detailed in order to create the style he thinks best suits his story. Or he might be influenced by what will make his book more marketable.
Let readers imagine. I need to set scenes for readers but I want their imagination working alongside mine. By adding their details, readers not only immerse themselves in my story, they’re participants in the storytelling. This draws people to fiction and explains why movie renditions of stories can be disappointing. And it’s another reason for me to be sparing with specifics.
Characters’ thoughts are valuable but in small doses. I’m interested in how the psychology of characters drives consequences. So, in addition to describing what characters say and do, I write about what they’re thinking. However, I limit the specifics to quick, single thoughts and brief ruminations about a conflict, which works well for thrillers. I figure anything more will bore readers, probably because it’ll feel like I’m telling instead of showing.
Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze
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