The books that stick with us the longest are the ones we love and the ones we hate. Sadly, it’s the latter one that I can’t get off my mind lately. I know my last blog was about Fifty Shades of Awful, and I hate to beat a dead horse, but I see that book as a great learning opportunity of what not to do.
The author who, by her biography, has experience in television production should have known she was making a beginner’s mistake by telling, not showing every element of her book except the sex scenes. Instead of taking the time to develop the heroine’s character, E. L. took the shortcut of having various people remark (several times because repetition is her most often overused device) on how witty, intelligent and beautiful Ana is. But, after suffering through some of the most juvenile dialogue since See Jane Run and marveling at Ana’s total lack of general knowledge that most people pick up in high school, the reader wonders if Ana is really a twelve year old in disguise. Actually, not even in disguise since she also dresses like a twelve year old.
A good author would have created circumstances that would have shown proof of the heroine’s intelligence and written dialogue that demonstrated her wittiness. We shouldn’t have to be told that a character is anything other than what is revealed by their actions, their thoughts and dialogue.
Pretend you’re at a movie. Does the audience know that the villain in Batman is really badass because he ruthlessly kills people (even his own), is relentless in his pursuit of his goal and because he wears a disfiguring mask? Or is it because Batman looks him in the eye and says, “Wow, you’re a really evil man”?
I’m working with a writer/friend right now who has a different problem with too much telling and not enough showing. He’s writing a novel based on an actual event, so he keeps putting in chunks of information in an omniscient point of view, then will switch back to third person. It’s all important information, but it cannot be dropped like a concrete block into a scene. It has to be discovered through dialogue or observation by the characters. This allows the reader to feel they are discovering it fresh along with everyone else. It keeps the reader involved.
Again, I used my film analogy and told him to pretend he’s watching that scene on the screen. Unless there is a narrator (which is seldom successfully used), everything you learn about the characters is by what is seen or heard on the screen. Screenwriting is way more difficult than writing a novel because it is so limited by the amount and distribution of any information about the characters or plots. Everything has to be spoken or shown. In the old days, they could cheat and dress the bad guys in black and the good guys in white to clue the audience. But people are savvy now. They want to understand why that guy is good or what makes that guy bad. Even the bad guy in Batman had a heart and we saw it.
So, put the time into creating characters who make us believe they are good or bad and why. Give them a back story, motivation, consistency. Let them have the opportunity to demonstrate their personality and their convictions. “Watch” your scenes critically and see if those people on your page are the same people who are in your head. Because we know our characters so well, we may not realize it’s not coming through on the page.
Don’t tell me what I should already know if you had done your job correctly. Show me.