Tag Archives: authors

When Readers See Behind the Curtain

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“Show, don’t tell” is such ubiquitous advice, repeated so often so often in conference halls, writing guidebooks and classrooms, that I’d imagine most creative writing teachers would save themselves a lot of time by owning the phrase emblazoned on a stamp (don’t bother Googling; I’ve already checked and no such object exists). There’s even a short story published in the New Yorker titled “Show Don’t Tell.” But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to tell. In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell cautions not to take the advice too literally, writing that “Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” I’d imagine the idea’s been around as long as we’ve been on Earth telling stories, though the phrasing is often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass

The idea is that one allows the reader to see, hear, taste, smell, feel and experience a scene in a more immersive way than getting hit with an info dump. That draws attention away from the fact that it’s a work of fiction and makes the story come to life, and there’s the key: telling is okay only insofar as it doesn’t break the illusion. I want to examine two authors telling and not showing in interesting ways. One writer pulls it off. For the other, I believe, the tactic backfires.

Telling as a Plot Device

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica may just be the best-researched novel ever written. Every page drips with details large and small, insider lingo and scientific accuracy (too much for some reviewers). Clearly he knows his subject matter. In fact, Robinson traveled to Antarctica as part of the NSF’s Artists and Writers Program, which, yes, is a real thing. In his story, shortly after landing at McMurdo research station in Antarcitca, one of his characters gets a call from his boss, who wants to know what it’s like down there. “Just tell me what you see, Wade,” he says. “You’re my eyes.” Wade responds:

Well, I’m walking by the Crary Lab now. It’s quite small, composed of three small buildings on a slope, with a passageway connecting them. There’s a street sign saying I’m on Beeker Street, but it’s not much of a street. There are a lot of pipelines right on the ground… Now I’m passing a building like a giant yellow cube, with a bunch of antennas on the roof. Must be the radio building. Now I’m passing a little chapel… Now I’m on a road going out to the docks. Right now the docks are empty, because the bay is iced over.

Oh, you clever writer person you! I bet there’s a little sticky note saying “show, don’t tell” on the corner of his laptop screen. He found a way to sneak an infodump into his story… but, come on. It’s still an infodump. For me, this passage exposed the wiring and gears behind the metaphorical curtain. The phone call is such an obviously convenient literary device that it draws attention to the fact that we’re reading a work of fiction and in doing so breaks the immersion, like seeing a cameraman’s reflection in a movie.

Telling to Advance the Plot

Raymond Chandler had a similar dilemma in his gritty noir novel Farewell, My Lovely, but he tackles it much more skillfully. His detective, Philip Marlowe, has just been jumped by assailants. He doesn’t see them coming. They smack him on the back of the head and he’s out. A little later, he regains consciousness. Here’s how chapter ten opens (edited lightly for space):

“Four minutes,” the voice said. “Five, possibly six. They must have moved quick and quiet. He didn’t even let out a yell.”

I opened my eyes and looked fuzzily at a cold star. I was lying on my back. I felt sick.

“Then one of them got into the car,” the voice said, “and waited for you to come back. The others hid again. They must have figured he would be afraid to come alone. Or something in his voice made them suspicious when they talked on the phone.”

I balanced myself woozily on the flat of my hands, listening.

“Yeah, that was about how it was,” the voice said.

It was my voice. I was talking to myself, coming out of it. I was trying to figure the thing out subconsciously.

“Shut up, you dimwit,” I said, and stopped talking to myself.

Now that is an inventive literary device. Both writers break the same rule for the same purpose, but Chandler finds a way to keep the immersion intact. He remains faithful to the spirit of “show, don’t tell.” Robinson’s clunky approach strikes me as nothing more than a plot device, whereas Chandler’s deft handling works to advance the story even during a lull in the action.

How Important Are Writing Guidebooks?

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Short answer: very important, but a danger comes with reading too many. Guidebooks are crucial if you have little in the way of formal training. They always help and never hurt. Case in point: a student in my business writing class sought me out after class one day. He wanted to be a fantasy writer. He wanted advice. I asked him if he’d taken any of our college’s creative writing classes. “Nope,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’m 100% self-taught.” Oh? I asked him what how-to books he’d read in the course of educating himself. He made a face. “Books?” he asked. “None. Should I?”

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But I Learn From Experience!

As a professional writer, the perception that writing is something easy irks me to no end. I’m reminded of the sage wisdom of Harry Crews:

“Your chances of being a renowned brain surgeon are better than being a renowned novelist,” he says. His sip of water at the end if particularly savage. I admire Harry Crews (A Feast of Snakes goes down as one of the darkest and most downright bizarre novels I’ve read), but I disagree with him on one point. I do believe that anyone can be a writer. But it takes time and practice and you have to learn from qualified experts. Fortunately for would-be novelists, there are no shortage of guidebooks to help us along. Too many, perhaps. In his criminally under-appreciated The Craft of Writing, editor and author William Sloane makes the following observation:

Lord knows this is not the first book on writing and the writer. There appear to be thousands of them, even if you leave out the accounts by writers themselves of how they wrote and what they wrote… All told, the combined instruction and encouragement thus afforded the part-time or beginning writer is more than sufficient to subtract seriously from the time he ought to be devoting to more important reading.

And there’s the rub. Time spent reading volumes of how-to guides is time taken away from reading novels in the genre you wish to write. In any genre, really. You shouldn’t read your genre exclusively (at least according to Faulkner). That’s why I was thrilled to discover that Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel opens with a list of “Novels That Set the Standard.” She splits her list of novels into categories based on their strength: plot, dialogue, characters, setting, action, suspense and classics that define the genre. I found that list the most valuable part of her guidebook, by a mile (and the advice itself was really good!). So read guidebooks, but understand that studying novels is equally important in the short term and more important in the long term.

But Aren’t Rules Meant to be Broken?

Do you feel that way? Here’s an antidote: become a teacher. Teach a couple semesters of creative writing. Let me know how that goes. Do you still feel that aspiring writers should be free to break rules? Look, obviously there are no hard and fast rules in writing. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner phrases the dilemma more eloquently than I can: “What the beginning writer ordinarily wants,” he writes, “is a set of rules on what to do and what not to do in writing fiction.” He concedes that there are some good general guidelines and warnings, but he warns against a search for anything absolute:

When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition… Trustworthy aesthetic universals do exist, but they exist at such a high level of abstraction so as to offer almost no guidance to the writer.

Sol Stein, in On Writing and How to Grow a Novel – both of which are excellent – is more pedantic than most. Stein recounts a conference he attended during which an aspiring writer put a question to a panel of experts regarding pace. Most of the panelists wiggled around the question with vague responses like “go by feel.” When they got to Stein, the first words out of his mouth were “Here’s how it’s done.” His advice is frank and specific. In some places I find it extremely helpful (such as his “Actors Studio” technique). In other places I find it frustrating. Which leads to my third point…

When Experts Disagree

Towards the end of How to Grow a Novel, Stein comments on the much-debated issue of manuscript length, and gives the reader an exact figure to shoot for: 75,000 words. “Longer than that is a hazard except for bestselling authors,” he writes. My debut novel was 93k in a first draft, then edited down to 87k when I began submitting. The version that got published was eventually cut to a final length of 84,000 words. I’ve learned firsthand how painful that process can be. So when I saw Stein suggest that even my hard-edited manuscript would be, in his eyes, nearly 10,000 words too long, my heart pulled one of these:

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Then a couple weeks ago, I got my hands on one of the best how-to guides I’ve had the pleasure of reading: Writing the Breakout Novel by literary agent Donald Maass. He talks a lot about the importance of adding depth to characters and places in order to create fiction that feels more fleshed-out and alive. “In enhancing your work,” Maass writes, “you may notice it growing lengthier.” He continues:

Breakout novels are highly detailed and generally complex. Their authors do not stint if adding material will deepen the impact of their stories. Many breakout novels are long. Do not be afraid of that.

He throws in a few asterisks, warning that “length is not a virtue all by itself.” No doubt that’s true. I remember talking to a conference-goer at last summer’s Writers Digest Conference who proudly announced that he planned to pitch a 300,000 debut novel to agents the next day. I suggested he cut the book in thirds and pitch it as a trilogy and he lost it. Some of the most famous books of all time are long, he protested (quite angrily). Later, on Facebook, I saw him complain that none of the agents ever got back to him. Sol Stein sounds like he’s heard that line before: “I know, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full is very long,” Stein writes. “So is his reputation.” Do you have a Nobel Prize? No? Then don’t pitch a 300,000 word book.

The Bottom Line

Experts will disagree, so listen, learn and take from them what you need. Writing a resume provides a good analogy. No hiring manager can tell you the right formula. My business writing students routinely expect me, as the professor, to have the correct answer, and their faces noticeably whiten when I tell them, at the outset, that I can’t deliver. That doesn’t mean (I hope) that they shouldn’t listen to me. I tell them to hear me out, then go to the career guidance office, then read the textbook, then poke around online. I warn that they will find conflicting information. That doesn’t mean that anything goes. Identify your strengths and take what you need from each source. Be as informed as possible. All that goes for writing a novel just as well.

What Can Writers Learn From The Movies?

 

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I got quite the death stare from my old creative writing prof, a man equal parts coffee stains and Phil Spector hair, when I reported to him in a moment of undergrad indiscretion that the inspiration for my short stories came “from the movies.” Ten years later, the roles reversed. Imagine my fatherly pride when one of my freshman comp students told me he dreamed of being a writer! I asked about his favorite authors. “What, you mean, like, books?” he asked, visibly confused. “I don’t read books. I’m more a movies and Nintendo kind of guy.”

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Looking from far and above, to echo Malinowski, from our high places of snobbery in erudite writerdom, it’s easy to dismiss such talk as an echo of the death rattle of literature (much exaggerated!). And, to be sure, if you want to be a writer you have to read. Yes, books. But cinema is an art form, after all, and just as anthropologist Ernest Becker argues in his 1962 book The Birth and Death of Meaning that no single academic discipline has a lock on the truth, so too is truth not the sole property of a single form of art. Becker describes a key assumption behind his project:

And if we want to understand very general attributes of what it means to be a human being, including the nature of soul, that we can’t do that from any one disciplinary perspective.

When approached as an intellectual exercise, I believe writers of fiction can study three aspects of film to improve their craft: (1) dialogue, (2) cinematography, and (3) emotional resonance (what I’ll call “general effect”).

The Advent of the Talkies

Let’s begin with the most obvious: dialogue. And I’ll start by trashing one of my favorite authors. I love Don DeLillo. He is one of the great living American novelists. But the dialogue in his stories is not always realistic. This is intentional. (“There are fifty-two ways to write dialogue that’s faithful to the way people speak,” he tells the Paris Review. “And then there are times when you’re not trying to be faithful.”) Here’s a taste, from his 2007 novel Falling Man:

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That dialogue reminds me of an Elmore Leonard technique of omitting words (see tip #7 here). From later in the same scene:

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You read enough of that and it starts to come out in your own writing. Two of my characters in Infinity Point have the following chapter-opening exchange:

“We’re close.”
“To what?”
“What do you mean to what? To it. The truth.”
“What, it’s a place? It’s something you can look at? The truth?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not really. What is your truth?”
“I couldn’t tell you. I can’t really say.”
“But the truth.”
“It’s an idea that can be distorted but not destroyed.”
“You’re sure of this.”
“It’s an idea bigger than us.”

(I couldn’t resist some slight editing.) That piqued the curiosity of my book club. “Huh,” one of the members said. “That doesn’t sound like how normal people talk.” Sorry, that’s just the Don DeLillo in me talking! But do we really want hyper-realism, all of the time? Better question: do we want it any of the time? Let’s see if we can better answer that question with the help of film. Exhibit A: an exchange from early in the noir film Double Indemnity (1944), in which femme fatale Phyllis, played by Barbara Stanwyck, first meets the co-conspirator with whom she will conspire to murder he husband. A romantic energy flourishes at first sight:

Is that how “normal people talk?” Not a chance! It’s pure style. The dialogue in that film (screenplay by Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler) is rapid-fire wit and moody noir by turns, helping maintain a spark between characters while developing a bleak undercurrent of doom. It is like a love affair at the end of the world. Contrast the stylistic approach with the following exchange from 12 Angry Men. Pay attention not only to what is being said but how each person is saying it:

So, what can we take away from that? It depends on what you’re going for. Studying screenplays is a better option for learning dialogue than eavesdropping at a coffee shop. “Life has no plots,” as Harmony Korine once put it. But ultimately you want to present the reader something with which they can relate. To that end, listen not only to what the characters say, but how they say it. Where are the pauses? What are they doing with their hands? All of this can be valuable to the writer.

The Canvas of the Imagination

In How to Grow a Novel, master editor Sol Stein speaks to the importance of visual details. He cites as an example the following snippet of Russel Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter, in which a bus driver makes her first stop of the morning at the top of a hill:

Down in the valley, you could see the house lights of Sam Dent coming on one by one, and along Routes 9 and 73 the headlights of a few cars flashed like fireflies as people headed to work.

I picture the image vividly. “An inexperienced writer,” Stein notes, “might say that down in the valley you could see the house lights of Sam Dent and the headlights of a few cars… But that wouldn’t be writerly.” Russian director Alexander Sokurov sees a deep affinity between the canvas of cinema and the more traditional canvas of a painting (sometimes to exhausting effect). Less obvious, I think, is the relation between that sort of visual canvas and prose writing. How does one learn to see those “writerly details” Stein describes? From studying the visual arts, of course! Take for example the following scene from Andrei Tarkovksy’s masterful Andrei Rublev (1966). I’d fast-forward to the 6:30 mark, unless you are in the mood for long-winded theological debate.

Every frame is packed with details. How might you describe in prose the children at 7:00 rolling down the hill? What do the dark splotches at 7:09 resemble? The films of Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos are far and away the best for this exercise. Here’s a supercut of striking visuals from The Weeping Meadow (2004):

Back during my first (ill-fated) foray into novel writing, I wanted a thrilling car chase sequence. Very difficult to write! I poked around Google in search of answers and chanced upon a friendly message-boarder who suggested queuing up a movie car chase, examining the cinematography, pausing every so often and trying to put into words what you just watched. The product of such efforts was admittedly terrible, but the idea stuck. Instead of trying to translate BADASS ACTION sequences from screen to page, I now seek out striking visual details that might help paint a more vivid image in a reader’s mind.

The Big Bang Symphony

Did I mention I once impulse-bought a novel based on nothing more than its fantastic title, The Big Bang Symphony? Well, I did, and it rewarded me with the core idea of my next novel. But that is what readers want – a big bang. Earlier in How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein writes that a reader of fiction is looking for “an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experiences in life.” He argues that the writer owes this to the reader out of simple courtesy. Think of a film that gave you that type of experience. For me, the first flick that comes to mind is Warwick Thornton’s criminally under-appreciated Samson and Delilah (2009), described as a “survival love story” set in an Australian Aboriginal community whose inhabitants lead, well, somewhat difficult lives.

Samson and Delilah is a brutally depressing film, unapologetic in its bleakness. It left me rattled for days. Most sad sappy melodramas are romanticized in a predictable “good cry” kind of way. Not so here. A crushing tale of despair, the film loses any hope of a happy ending from the opening frame. In What is Art, Leo Tolstoy famously opined that

Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications

Warwick Thornton took a feeling and transmitted it to me through the medium of film. The obvious question is, how does one do that? I don’t think there’s any practical advice anyone can give on this point other than “try.” Once, in a teenage moment of youthful indiscretion, I attempted to convey the feeling of a Bruce Springsteen song into a short story. You’ll laugh, but it helped me become a better writer. It was hard! I had to put a ton of thought into the translation of an emotion into worlds, doing so (hopefully) in a way that will communicate this emotion via ESP into the mind of a reader.

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Administrivia

I’m hoping this becomes a regular series: “What Can Writers Learn From _______?” I will do diligent, cross-disciplinary research and plumb the depths of various arts and sciences for ideas writers can shoplift. These posts are long (I mean, I guess) and well-researched, and they take time to write. I’m trying to get into a regularly-scheduled habit of blogging this summer. Meanwhile I am also working on my next novel, which I’m hoping to get into presentable shape before the Writers Digest Conference in August. Those factors considered, expect regular updates.

One thing I’m really bad at is ending blog posts.