Showing versus Telling & Subtlety

Sometimes being subtle is more descriptive, I’ve found.  Saying “they were brothers” is specific, but not really descriptive. What kind of relationship do they have? Are they estranged or close?

Showing

I realized that while writing about the siblings in my story. I did say outright that they were two brothers and a sister—but the important part is actually the way they treat each other.  For example, they argue a lot. Especially the older two. And yet they also have pet nicknames for each other. These two things together show both how close they are and yet also how imperfect their relationship is.

Yet it’s also totally subtle. I never pointed out either of these two things (or any of the other ways they treat each other that help suggest their relationship), but it still helps the reader figure out what the dynamics are between the characters, way better than me saying “they’re siblings” does.  Or even “the siblings were close, but they had some issues”.

Actually, this is exactly what showing instead of telling is. I am showing their relationships.

I think there actually is a place for telling, somewhat. In this particular situation, who’s to say that my “showing” won’t leave the reader just assuming they’re really good friends, rather than siblings?  I think I show their being family well enough, but that’s certainly something to consider, hence why I actually do say they are siblings.

I hesitate to let this turn into another “showing versus telling” post, because there’s already so many of them out there.  But it really clicked with me, this time, exactly what showing is.

In all the examples of showing versus telling I’ve seen in the past, it always seems to be smaller things.  Say, emotion.  Show the emotion, don’t just tell me she’s angry.  Right?  We know that.   (On the subject of showing emotions, the Emotion Thesaurus is awesome for helping with that.)

But showing is so much deeper than that.  In fact, it occurred to me, you can show while telling.  Take, for example, a description of a room.  If you describe the room, you’re probably telling.  But while you’re telling me what the room looks like, you can pick your words so that at the same time, you’re showing what the narrator thinks/feels about the room.

Another thing is character arcs.  Or character personalities.  Do we tell our readers upfront that this character is saucy?  Well, maybe, but then what do we do?  Show their sauciness.  And then as the story progresses, again, we show the character development.  What good would development be if it was all told?

Once upon a time, Selena was a spoiled child who had no idea what privileges she had.  Then her father declared bankruptcy and she lost everything.  She got a taste for what life is like at the poverty level, and she found humility.

THE END.

That really isn’t how we develop characters.  Or introduce characters.  Or introduce events.  Or…really any of that.  I’m pretty sure even the “the end” is telling.  (You know, usually we show readers they reached the end by having a back cover after the last page.)

Or world-building!  Isn’t that all showing, as well?  (Of course, there is the occasional world-building info-dump because I think it’s impossible to avoid info-dumps 100%, but still, that isn’t how all of it’s shown.  Or even most.)

Showing goes way deeper than just a simple “her cheeks turned pink and she looked at the ground” instead of “she was ashamed”.  And I think the best showing is so subtle, you don’t necessarily know you’re being shown.

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The Character I Wish Existed in More Fiction

There’s this huge push for diversity lately, especially in characters.  More this, more that!  I like some of the changes that I’m seeing, but there’s one character I don’t see often and I wish I did.

The introvert.

Introvert

The biggest problem with introverted characters is that there are attempts to write them.  I’ve read about plenty of characters who are shy or antisocial/asocial or socially-awkward.  There are definitely wallflowers in fiction.

But being a wallflower isn’t what being an introvert is.

Part of the problem, I think, is that a lot of people don’t actually understand what introverts are.  I’ve heard people describe introverts as being those shy or wallflower people.  Someone else I knew thought that it had to do with how well someone could communicate.  Someone else I know thinks of introvertedness as a character flaw that needs to be overcome.

The thing is, being a wallflower or being shy are sometimes effects of being an introvert.  But it isn’t the root of it.

I’m an introvert, and for me, being an introvert isn’t just how I communicate or how I make friends.  It’s true—I hate crowds.  If I enter a room with a lot of people, I tend to stay near the edge of the room.  Usually by a wall.  I’m shy when I meet new people, and sometimes, I have a hard time initiating a conversation with somebody I’m not real familiar with.

But that isn’t what being an introvert is about.

I like being alone, sometimes.  But I hate being lonely.  I have friends, and I need my friends.  Without them, I’d go crazy.  I might have more fictional characters in my head than real friends, but what friends I do have that are real are really close friends.

Sometimes, being an introvert means I will pick one really close friend over a group of people qualifying as “I…think we might be friends?  Maybe?”.  I prefer deep conversations over light and fluffy useless ones.  (That’s not to say I can’t talk about the weather.  In fact, I like to compare the weather from where I live to the weather where some of my non-local friends live.)

Sometimes, being an introvert means breaks from routine are tiring.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to have something a little different happen.  I can go stir-crazy as easy as anybody else.  But if something goes differently one day, then it needs to be normal the next day so I can recover.  I think this goes for most people, actually, but as an introvert, my “downtime” is really important.  I went to a birthday party this afternoon?  Okay, I’ll probably spend the evening holed up in my room with my headphones.  I went on vacation for two weeks?  Great, it was awesome, and now the next week is probably going to be spent mostly at home.  Without the downtime, I get more easily overwhelmed and my stress level rises.

I gravitate towards the walls in a room, but sometimes it’s just so I can see everything going on.  I’m shy at first, but if I warm up to somebody, I can talk until they’re sick of me.  I don’t have a lot of friends, but the ones I do have are important.  I need my routines, and I love breaks from them, but then I need the routines again.

To bring this back around to characters, I think the thing is, there are introverted characters.  But they only just scratch the surface.  They only have a few of the stereotypical “features” of an introvert.  Or, even worse, they’re viewed as having a character flaw and it has to be overcome.

“Oh, don’t worry, by the end of this story, you’re going to be the biggest social butterfly in existence.

Being an introvert isn’t just being shy.  It isn’t a character flaw.  There’s nothing wrong with me.  It’s the way I think.  It’s the way I interact.  Being an introvert can introduce flaws or be coupled with them—like being too shy to make friends—but it isn’t the flaw itself.

I wish there were more truly introverted characters, instead of just shy or asocial ones.

All These Voices In My Head Sound Like Me

I’ve always thought that dialogue was my strong suit with writing.  I don’t really know if that’s the case, because I’ve never had anybody tell me that, but when I wrote dialogue, I felt confident about it.  Meanwhile, even still, if I have to describe something, usually I start scowling and write something really bare-bones that I’ll need to add to later because I want to just get past the description and move on already.

Why is it I felt confident with dialogue?

Part of it is that I would sometimes listen to people talking, and I’d take note of it.  I’m not really sure if anybody notices this, but I picked up on that everybody has a different way of speaking.  Sometimes it’s obvious things like—when this person talks, she moves her hands and gestures with everything.  But there’s also smaller differences, in the way they word sentences.  Because there are so many different ways you can say the same thing, and different ways will give it different meaning and different personality.

When I noticed this, I noticed that all of my characters said things the same way—the way I spoke.  They worded things the exact same way I would word it.  And in some ways, I don’t think this was truly a big problem, because they are my characters, but it makes it hard to make them unique.

Because, see.  I think the general rule with dialogue is that if you can get away with no dialogue tag, you don’t use a dialogue tag.  And the way you do that is to make it really obvious who’s talking by what they’re saying.  And if all of the characters sound the same, how can you do this?

You make them sound different.

So I started listening to the different ways people worded things and tried to pick up on it, and make my characters’ voices sound more unique.  To this day, I honestly don’t really know how well I did, but it was an important thing to do, listening to people talk, I think.  And it gave me an interesting skill, too.  I’m pretty good at telling when a character—or a even a real person—doesn’t sound like themselves.

Making characters sound different doesn’t have to be real drastic.  This doesn’t mean dropping all contractions for a regal character, or adding an accent that makes the words unpronounceable, or using “thee” and “thou”.  Not that you can’t do those things, but you don’t use that to make them sound unique.  (I do have a character that doesn’t use any contractions.  It sounds really awkward and stilted, so I wouldn’t recommend it.  But she’s a computer, so I can get away with it, I think.)

Instead, you do it in small ways.  This is like the difference between saying “How are you?” and “What’s up?”  Or when someone calls your name, I’ve heard people respond with “What?” and some respond with “Yeah?” Or even “Huh?”  Or the difference between saying the full “I don’t know” versus “I dunno”.

On the opposite note, as important as it is to make characters have unique voices, it’s also important, I think, to make sure that the characters still all sound like they belong to the same world and that they all fit with your writing style.  I’ve honestly never had a character say “What’s up?” because I never say that.  The phrase never honestly actually crosses my mind.  (Probably doesn’t help that my favorite way to respond to that question is to just smartly report whatever happens to be above my head at the time.  Nobody’s asked me what’s up in a long time, hehe…)

And also.  People tend to talk like whoever they hang around with the most.  So many times I’ve said something, and then thought that I sounded like a friend of mine or even one of my siblings.  It happens.  So remember that with characters.

So to conclude this post, here’s a random dialogue prompt that…sort of relates to this topic.

See, it relates!  Because manners can affect how somebody speaks, right?

Negatively-Charged Backwardsness

Have you ever tried to write things backwards?

.tib ynit a tsuJ  .truh niarb ym sekam fo dnik sdrawkcab gnitirw ,tuo snruT

Right.  If you haven’t already, this is the part where you roll your eyes at me.  Because that isn’t what I meant by writing backwards.

Earlier today, I was trying to figure out a character’s personality.  I wasn’t really sure who she was.  But I more or less knew who I wanted her to be by the end of the story.  So I figured that out exactly, and then I worked backwards, and figured out who she’d have to be first, so that she’d become what I wanted by the end.

Working backwards works with a lot of things, in a lot of different ways.  Retracing your steps to find where you stuffed your keys could be considered working backwards.  Knowing where your ending is, you can figure out where the characters need to be (both physically and emotionally/regarding their character arc), and then you can figure out how they got there, and then you can figure out the beginning.

Working with the ending makes sense, though.  If you know where you need to end up, you can work backwards to where you started, and voilá, we know our route.  Or at least several possibilities.  (And then you’ll know how you ended up at Point β instead of Point B, even though those don’t even belong to the same alphabet.)

But working backwards can also help in other ways, too.  Why?  Because it changes your perspective.

I’ll show you.

In drawing, we have this technique called “drawing negative space”.  When you draw negative space, you will end up with the exact same object as if you…didn’t draw negative space.  So why do it?

chair-316889_6402

This chair.  It’s very simple.  There’s the black part of the chair, the white part of the dead space, and the purple square that I drew on it.  The black part is the positive space.  (Actually, I don’t know if that’s what it’s called, but for simplicity’s sake, that’s what it is.)  The white part is the negative space.  Probably pretty easy to figure that out.

If someone were to try to redraw this chair, they’d start drawing the edge of the black, yes?  Or they’d print it out and trace it because let’s face it, tracing is way easier.  Usually.  Or, you could draw the edge of the white instead.

Basically, look at my purple square.  Instead of drawing the edge of the seat, the two sides of the legs, and the top of the bar, you’d draw the square.  You end up with the same thing.  But it’s a different perspective.  Once done with that square, you could draw the other squares between all the legs. (And…I’m now realizing they’re actually rectangles, and none of them are squares.  I really did pass geometry, I swear.)

The point in drawing all of the white rectangles instead of the chair itself is that you don’t have to worry about depth.  All of the things around us are three-dimensional, and sometimes it’s hard for our brains to look at those objects and turn them into 2D objects so that we can get them onto paper.  Drawing that front leg, and then making sure the back leg is in the right place is sometimes harder because that back leg is, guess what, behind the front one.  But if you draw the space between it…

chair-316889_64023

Once you have these nice simple little squares in, its easy to see how to draw the rest of the chair, yes?  Add it in, and we have a purple chair.  Not only that, but it’ll actually be more proportionally correct (usually) than if you’d gone about drawing it a different way.  (Although, drawing it upside down would work too.)

So in the end, we have a chair.  And we went about it…well, not really backwards, but more like negatively.

To wrap this back around to writing.  Sometimes, when you’re stuck or you need to figure something out, you look at the negative space.  What’s already there?  What is inherently caused by the things already there, and how does that affect everything else?  What isn’t there?

I use this to figure out plot points, develop characters, even for my world-building.  And, of course, for drawing chairs.  It really does help to look at things differently.

Look, I found my keys!

 

The Right Perspective, Part One: Vanishing Points and PoV

Picking the right character to do something or show something is important, more important than I think we realize.  How do you know who’s the right person to narrate?  Should it be the protagonist?  Should it be written in first person or third person?  Should it be limited or omniscient?  How many narrators should there be?

Is there a right way to narrate?

I don’t think there’s “one” right way.  But there are wrong ways—and what those are depend on the story.

In the art world, there’s this fancy-sounding term that called “the vanishing point”. The vanishing point is where the lines of perspective meet up.  It looks like, as things get further away, they grow smaller and smaller until they become a single point.  I’m not sure how often vanishing points are actually visible, but in theory, they’re all over the place.   For example, if you stand in the middle of the street and look down at one end or another, the houses and the street seem to get smaller and smaller.  Now, unless that street is really long, and there are absolutely no bumps/hills, the vanishing point isn’t actually visible—but in theory, it should be there.

The purple lines follow the lines of perspective, and all meet down at the vanishing point. Not the neatest image, but it gets the point across. (Haha, get it? Point?)

Are the houses and stuff actually getting smaller?  Of course not.  If you walked down the street, those other houses on the end would actually be house-sized once you stood in front of them.  They only seem to be smaller.  That’s perspective.

VP0
This is the exact same image as before, but with no vanishing point and no perspective. See how different the two are?

Vanishing points aren’t strictly necessary, technically, but they add depth and a different perspective to the same image.  In fact, in the image that has no vanishing point, you can see a lot less things, and it all seems way more flat.  Of course, there can be more than just one vanishing point, and that changes it up even more.

This is a little bit sloppy, but if you follow the purple lines, they eventually lead to not one, but three vanishing points—one to the left, to the right, and up above.

Now, all of this was mostly to illustrate how perspective can drastically change the same thing.  (Let’s excuse the fact that the third image was of different buildings than the first two, because I think the idea is clear enough anyway.)  How does this apply to writing?

In writing, perspective usually refers to point of view—the PoV character, or the narrator.  And PoV is very important to perspective.  First person narration, someone described to me once, is being inside the character’s head.  We see what they see, hear what they hear and what they think, feel what they feel.  In a way, we almost become them, at least so long as we’re in their story.  Third person, meanwhile, is more like becoming friends with the character (unless, of course, the author wanted us to dislike them, but that’s irrelevant).  The difference between first person and third person is like the difference between being the character and being friends with the character.

You see how that affects perspective?

Now let’s talk about first-impressions for a moment.  First impressions are important with people.  How likely is it that that person will talk to you again, when the first-impression you made is that you’re a total dork?  Well, unless they like dorks, your chances are probably pretty slim of making friends with them.  In writing, first impressions are not much different.  It’ll shape the reader’s view of a character.   Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just that, and first impressions can be completely and utterly wrong.

But they still affect it, do they not?

So let’s say, you have a first person narrator.  She’s had a rough life, and as a result, she tends to not trust people.  When she meets this random new character, what is she probably going to think of him?  She probably will automatically not trust him.  He may do something to further that mistrust, or maybe it’s all in the narrator’s head.

What’s the first impression?  Assuming the first-person is written well enough that the reader is actually invested in the story, and that the reader thinks the narrator is reliable (I’ll get to that topic in another post), the reader’s first impression of this character is that he’s going to be untrustworthy.  Why?  Because that’s what the narrator thinks.

What does this mean?  Well, let’s take a look at who this new character is.  Let’s say… let’s say he isn’t trustworthy, and later on in the story, he’s going to betray the main character.  But let’s also say you want this betrayal to be a plot twist—and therefore to not be totally predictable.

If, from the very start, the reader suspects him, how predictable do you think this plot twist will be?

Now, what if we had a different narrator?  It’s the other character’s friend, who’s much more trusting.  When she meets this new character, she’s not immediately put off by him.  She doesn’t have to like him, necessarily, but she doesn’t distrust him.  So that means, when the reader sees the new character from her eyes, their first impression isn’t going to be as bad.

Are we going to distrust this new character as much?  Probably not, unless he does something really suspicious.

So if we want his betrayal to be more of a surprise, which narrator is probably going to help us out more?  The trusting one.  Because, to a point, the reader is going to feel what the protagonist feels, especially in first person.  Remember, first person is becoming the protagonist.  Third person is befriending the protagonist.

So if we’re being narrated by the distrustful character, her first impression, and therefore the reader’s, will be that the new character isn’t trustworthy.  The narrator’s friend might tell her that she’s being silly and he doesn’t seem untrustworthy, but that isn’t going to be enough to overpower that first impression.

If the trusting one is narrating, then that’s our first impression.  Her friend might tell her that she’s too trusting and that the new character is suspicious, but that might also not be enough to overpower the first impression.

It’s all the same information.  But how it’s portrayed—what perspective it’s shown in—will determine how the reader processes that information.  So who is picked as the narrator can be pretty important.

(Disclaimer: This is completely theoretical.  There are other factors to this whole thing, and it only really works if the reader is wholly invested in the protagonist.  If the reader just isn’t quite clicking with the character, for whatever reason, they might end up with a totally different view.  But even that you can manipulate.)