Sunday, April 24, 2011

Show v. Tell in First Person

Writing is creative freedom.  Revising is honing your craft.

It took me over two years to write my novel.  That time included the first seventeen chapters that I scrapped, and that final glorious moment when I wrote those two elusive little words - The End.  The time in between was filled with exploration, doubling back, forging new paths and pondering the roads in front of and behind me. Out of focus scenes came into sharp relief, and fuzzy characters sought, and found, definition.

It was hard work.  Having never written a story that long, I struggled to pull it all together so that the words on the page matched the ideals in my head.  I switched from first person, to third, and back to first when I realized that first person gave me the intimacy I needed to pull off Hannah's backstory.  This mattered a great deal, since the backstory was the reason for writing the book in the first place.

Hannah's backstory is my backstory.  It's a piece of myself that I needed to share.  Devastating loss shaped who I am, and I emerged from the experience wiser and more aware of exactly how overcoming adversity builds character.  People every day face challenges, and they need to know that there is goodness and hope so that they have the strength and courage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to face another sunrise.

If you read over the above three paragraphs, you'll have a good sense of the style in which my novel was written.  It was very introspective, with a great deal of internal monologue on Hannah's part.  She considers different aspects of a situation and arrives at various conclusions throughout the story.  This is an integral part of her character development and justifies her epiphanies and subsequent resolution of the plot.

This is not to say that the manuscript is 60,000 words of her thinking.  There's plenty of dialogue and action to carry the story.  But the narrative had that distance - that thinking quality about it - that although it felt like showing, was really telling.  Take special note of the parts in red.  They're telling culprits.

Let me show you what I learned about showing v. telling.

Twitter was my new friend.  Elizabeth S. Craig's feed pointed me in the direction of countless useful blog posts.  I devoured them.  Then I forwarded them to my new writing group with overwhelming enthusiasm.

In more than one post I found sage advice, which I reluctantly followed.  I printed my whole document and read it out loud to myself.  The sound of my own voice droned on in the quite sanctuary where I worked.  My main character nodded her head.  Twice.  I scratched out the word 'head' both times and moved on.

During the next round of revising it hit me.  Hannah was too distant.  She needed immediacy.

I remember when it hit me.  I was thinking back to one of my blog posts about a technique I used to write a scene: I closed my eyes, and watched and listened as it unfolded, promptly putting the images and sounds to paper.  It wasn't enough.  I needed to be Hannah.  Immediately, I stopped imagining the scene with Hannah in it and instead looked at it from within her.  I closed my eyes again, but this time I saw what she could see, heard what she could hear, felt what she would feel, smelled what she could smell, and tasted what she could taste.

Suddenly, the scenes took on new life. I deleted every sentence where I stated the emotion I was trying to convey.  The original words used to craft the passage vanished,  replaced with those that were upsetting to hear.  Hannah's reactions became those of an upset person.  Emotions of every shape and color filled the pages.  When Marc took her out to dinner, their mutual attraction was palpable.  

Can you feel what I figured out?

This immediacy was the missing factor.  Without it, my manuscript deserved rejection.  With it, I'm confident it has a fighting chance.  The story was compelling.  The storytelling wasn't.

To be honest, this post was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.  Writing the experience of my epiphany took several revisions to pull out the telling and replace it with showing.  The words are different, as is the sentence structure.

Are you there with me as I discover the power of Twitter?  Do you feel yourself sitting in front of printed pages, revising?  Can you feel the internal shift as I discovered what was missing?  Did you close your eyes and picture your own story from within the POV character?  Was my renewed energy toward revising evident in the focused changes that I was making?

I wasn't just telling you about it.  I took you there with me.  And that, my fellow writers, makes all the difference.

I'm glad I didn't rush and submit before I figured this out.  I've totally blown my personal submission deadline, but I refuse to submit what I know is substandard.  Now, I'm working hard toward completion and I'm getting excited about finally being ready to submit.

Have you had a similar experience in struggling with showing v. telling?  I'd love to hear about it.

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