Alisha: Please welcome Skhye Moncrief to my blog today! She's sharing her knowledge of SHOW DON'T TELL. Listen up, folks! This is good stuff that all writers need to know! Thanks for being here today, Skhye!
Skhye: After posting examples of golf narration and how I revised it in two different SHOW DON'T TELL posts, it's time for me to explain why my writing style now appears to be 1st Person with a whole lot of 3rd person sprinkled throughout it. I think the best way to deal with this is to resurrect an old blog post:
THE SOUL OF FICTION...
When reading in the last place I'd thought I'd find something of value for writing, I stumbled upon a few paragraphs that made me think…Tomlinson and Lynch-Brown's THE ESSENTIALS IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE slammed oral history on the table yesterday. Years ago, I took AN INTRO TO HUMANITIES from a team of professors back in the late 90s--just to pick up anything I might have missed by studying a whole lot of hard science for my BS. I'm serious. 100 hours excluding the math. That's all hard science and then some. So, I felt a wee bit intimidated switching to archaeology. 'Tis always better to go into a fight with your boxing gloves on, the pessimist thinks! So, one professor on this great attempting-to-teach-me-all-about-humanities team had specialized in children's literature. Children's literature, as what we define it, hasn't been around long.
Aesop's Fables were published in 1484. Nothing else was until the first picture book in 1657, ORBIS PICTUS. And still nothing else until what is considered the Golden Age of Children's Books in Great Britain, 1860-1900. The trend clarified, I recall the children's literature professor saying children's literature is a recent addition to what was more or less a historical trend of teaching children how to read the Bible. Yes, Protestants are all about mystically connecting with The One on their own. And children's literature for centuries was essentially stories geared toward keeping a child in line or said child wouldn't get the final prize--salvation. Now, I could ramble off on a tangent about how we would rather pretend children were always nurtured the way we nurture ours today. But I won't pontificate here! So, what does all this have to do with story and storytelling?
I'm going to quote straight from Tomlinson and Lynch-Brown's THE ESSENTIALS IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE...
"Traditional literature includes several different types of stories, but because they were all shared orally for so long, they have many features in common. For example, plots are generally shorter than in other genres of literature because all but the essential details were omitted during countless retellings. Action, in turn, is concentrated, which kept audiences alert and interested. Characters in traditional literature tend to have only one outstanding quality, which made them easy to identify. In these stories the audience has no doubt about who is good and who is bad. Settings are unimportant and are described and referred to in the vaguest of terms, such as "In the beginning..." or "Long ago in a land far away...." The language, though full of rhythm and melody, is sparse, since lengthy explanations and descriptions were also pared down or eliminated by countless retellings. Style is characterized by stock beginnings and endings ("Once upon a time" and "They lived happily ever after"), motifs or recurring features (use of the number three, as in three sisters, three wishes), and repetition of refrains or chants ("Mirror, mirror, on the wall..."). Themes most common in these stories are good versus evil, the power of perseverance, and explanations for the ways of the world. One feature that makes these stories particular favorites of young children is that they almost always have a happy ending.
"Folklore is still being created, particularly in some of the developing countries where the oral tradition remains the chief means of communication. In our country, urban legends, jokes, and jump-rope rhymes are all part of the constantly evolving body of folklore. These stories and rhymes are of unknown origin, but they are certainly not ancient,..." (Ch. 5, pg. 101)
For me, this explanation of the origins of children literature in oral history is a definition of oral history, i.e. story. The professor, teaching Medieval Literature and Renaissance & Reformation English Lit that I recently took for research purposes, asked the class of literature majors and me, "Why is oral history important?" And as usual, nobody answered--the typical reaction to one of her questions. And since I always tired of the professor waiting and waiting for an answer, I told her the anthropological reason: Oral history is a powerful tool. Just look at it...
Oral history taught the concept of story. It drove the development of languages. It taught children what was expected of them. And those children who followed their lessons grew up to become adults who reproduced and taught their children how to survive. All because of oral history, i.e. story. See how the thing that inspired me to write this blog post is that oral history is story. We writers write story. And looking at oral history we can see that every story should push the audience to aspire to something because story is a didactic tool.
See how story is a powerful tool? And, why is Skhye rambling about this? I’m getting there. (Really!)
I once heard a story doctor speak at a local large Houston-area writer's conference. This was early in my writing career and quite moving. He had been a long-time editor for a major publisher and switched to a manuscript-doctoring service for large houses. (Must be nice! LOL) Anyway, he had read all the synopses submitted with contest entries at this conference and reported at his synopsis workshop that nobody had written a synopsis. Synopses are not a list of a series of events. They list/show character growth from a story's beginning to end. He went on to explain a story is just a story. A novel is a story with character growth--a tale that encourages readers to aspire to achieve something, even if that achievement is only in understanding something, a lesson learned. He added that anyone who is told they are a storyteller is being subtly insulted. In other words, hearing "You're a great storyteller." in a rejection letter shouldn't confuse us. The term "storyteller" simply indicates you are telling a story and haven't written a novel that shows a character faces a challenge and grows from said obstacle like in the definition of oral history. Of course, this holds true with shorts and novellas. They are simply shorter. Remember:
1. Character growth is the moving force in your writing.
2. Character growth is what the reader connects with.
3. You must have character growth in your work.
4. Character growth is the soul of fiction.
A story is just plot, a sequence of events as scenes. To write a novel, these scenes must contain hurdles--burning hoops--your character must face. Choices a character makes are strung together, i.e. connected by what some of us have been taught to include in our work--goals, motivation, and conflict--to show character growth. The POV you've chosen to tell your story dictates how you handle informing the reader of these goals, motivation, and conflict. So, I'd like to bow out here and see if the two paragraphs I lifted from Tomlinson and Lynch-Brown's THE ESSENTIALS IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE strike a chord with anyone else. Because characters have always made a story, even when the story was told through oral history. You have to focus on the characters. You have to make them real regardless of the time or place (that’s another ballgame!).
Anyone? Anyone? (I'm having Ferris Bueller's Day Off flashbacks!)
How does this old blog post work into SHOW DON'T TELL here today?
The POV you choose greatly affects what your reader experiences in reading your story. Ever hear of distancing POV? This type of POV displaces the reader from living vicariously through your POV character--TELLS. Whereas I try to keep my readers right in the POV character's mind. There's no drawing out to drop two paragraphs of backstory or just to chug and plug through a lot of cold sterile action in narrative. My POV character lays everything important on the table while thinking through facing each obstacle (stimulus) I place before him/her. And in processing how to react to a stimulus, my POV character SHOWS the reader what he/she is made of, i.e. I characterize line-by-line. I think this is the goal of characterization courses. But nobody teaches people to write the way I do because I no longer italicize my internalization. Maybe a key word. Definitely the initial internal 1st Person Present Tense thought in a scene to establish whose head we're in...because I write multiple POVs this way in each of my tales.
Yes, bringing myself to break writing rules like the one where a writer can only write one 1st Person POV per story was tough for me. But I had to do it. My publisher's editor told me to...(Refer to the comments in SHOW DON'T TELL: Adios Golf Narration! for the long explanation.) Anyway, it's okay to break writing rules when a professional tells you to. Right? It's not your fault like when you're late for work because you drove through Starbucks to get that special perfect cake doughnut, eh? Always use the professional as a scapegoat. Everyone has a scapegoat. Scapegoats are part of human nature--that placing of blame, pointing the finger, shirking responsibility for whatever you have to do. So, I'm human. Shoot me.
HOW DOES HARD-HEADED SKHYE BREAK WRITING RULES?
I break writing rules! I do! Shame on me. How? I don't limit a story to just one POV because it appears I'm writing in 1st person. No. I write at least 2 POV characters per story in what looks like 1st person. Why? Because I deal with emotion. Don't all authors? Okay, maybe not those of plot-driven stories. Grant it, romance authors write 2 plots in each tale--1 is internal, the other external. *wink* Add to that how the one thing that I took away from the 80 hours of anthropology that I studied--the thing all cultural anthropologists deal with in applied anthropology--is that people lie.This fundamental truth about human nature makes me cringe whenever I read a story lacking immediate thought. We can't read minds on Earth, people. We are only human. Don't expect me to believe a damned thing any of your characters say. No. People lie. I want proof of a character's integrity the moment I need it--not 50 pages later when you get around to SHOWING me. Don't expect me to wait that long. Been there. Wrote that way. Done with that technique.
SHOWING a character's thoughts rounds out the delivery of your story and makes it so much more realistic. Isn't realism what a reader relates to? In the end, culture is what people have, what people do, AND what people think...It's the thought that counts, or so they say. And I'm running with that one! So, you still don't believe me?
It's Just a Little White Lie...
As a reader, you can't just accept what people say as truth. And as a writer, you can't expect the reader to assume the reason your heroine doesn't want to go to the dance is a standard reason when it's one of hundreds. So, for whatever reason, everybody lies. Why? Even little white lies help us get what we want. We lie to fit in. To appear kind. To gain the golden ring. You're late for work because you forgot to set your alarm clock or you decided to drive through Starbucks and were stuck in the drive-thru line for thirty minutes for whatever reason. Do you admit this to your boss? Who would? Why not think of something more life-threatening than your addiction to a particular latte or the fact you just don't see the point in setting your alarm clock. You know, shoot for pity during the big confrontation with an angry employer. People decide how to deal with this sort of thing all the time to avoid the repercussions for bad decision making. And there's definitely going to be repercussions if you're thirty minutes late for work because of a detour to grab that cake doughnut only Starbucks sells...Um, ever hear about that thing called "getting fired?"
What about the person who is late to work because he had to buy medicine for a sick relative and drop it off? Won't hearing his thoughts and showing his physical behavior SHOW the reader he's a good sympathetic character? Won't the reader root for him even more? What if you play with the character who never lies? Yes, supposedly there are a few of that rare breed. But we'll never know because we can't read their minds. However, a writer can use that little bit of knowledge to reinforce a character's integrity. Ah ha! Using immediate thought and the related dialogue to do the opposite of SHOWING why people lie is equally significant!
So, now you know how revealing a character's thoughts is going to engage the reader more than boring TELLING in distancing POV. Immediate thought reveals the choicest reason for your character reacting at any point in the sea of endless possibilities. Include in a few words of mental reasoning before a character phyically reacts to every stimulus you place before him/her, and the reader will never think your story is contrived. Not to mention, that reader will grip that book to The End. Isn't that what you want? ~Skhye
Next post: How to set up your story to read like this...Hint: the formula I've mentioned. All you need is the formula. The internalization does the rest!