Writing looks easy. We spend a large part of each day communicating with words. How hard can it be to put those words onto paper for someone else to read?
A fellow writer asked for a critique of a piece of writing on Goodreads. I don’t have permission to reproduce it, so I will paraphrase:
Ted was a twenty four year old theatre designer living in New York. He was not very good with women. His best friend said that he would be a bachelor for the rest of his life unless he found someone desperate enough to take pity on him.
One day …
In one sense, this is okayish writing. The spelling and grammar look fine. We are introduced to a character with an interesting character flaw, which is always more appealing than two dimensional characters who never do anything wrong. The story is starting to flow.
But there’s a problem, which will jump off the page to an experienced writer or an editor. A reader almost certainly won’t notice it, although it would have a subconscious effect on how well they enjoyed the book.
He was not very good with women.
This is the main point about Ted’s character. It drives the rest of the story. It’s an important and interesting feature. And the author has just gone and blurted it out without any preamble or explanation.
As we say in the trade, that is telling not showing. And we should usually do it the other way round – we should show not tell.
Imagine that someone has just run into your house and told you that there is a dragon in your garden. That is a pretty exciting thing to happen, but you don’t just want to be told, do you? You will need to go and see it for yourself.
That is the choice that a writer has. He could set his scene in the garden and show you the dragon. Roaring, flapping wings, eating cows. Or he could set his scene inside the house and show you someone telling someone else about the dragon. Guess which one is usually the most exciting?
Back to Ted and his romantic difficulties. How do we show this rather than tell it?
This is going to get a lot more complicated. It may seem like a lot of work. A lot of what we are going to talk about won’t end up in your writing. But trust me on this one. You need to work through these complications to make writing look simple and effortless.
First we need to unpack what we mean by “Ted was not very good with women.”
What exactly is his problem? What is he doing wrong? And here we could come up with dozens of possible angles.
Maybe he is shy. He is so afraid of making a mistake that he comes across as tongue-tied and awkward.
Perhaps he has a body odour problem.
He could be a misogynist.
He might be a geek, say a Star Trek or Star Wars nerd.
He might be overly lecherous with eyes on stalks and what the old joke called the Nomad disease. The Nomad disease? Yes … wandering palms.
There is a scene in Sleepless in Seattle where the main character is not good in the dating scene because he has been married for so long. This gives us this brilliant dialogue where the hero Sam is asking his buddy Jay for dating advice:
Sam Baldwin: What is “tiramisu”?
Jay: You’ll find out.
Sam Baldwin: Well, what is it?
Jay: You’ll see!
Sam Baldwin: Some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I’m not gonna know what it is!
There are lots of possibilities. The one that we choose depends on what else we want to do with the character, and how he will react with other characters.
Let’s pick one at random. Let’s say that Ted is an obsessive Star Trek fan. So do we now write “Ted was not very good with women because he was an obsessive Star Trek fan”?
Nope. It’s still too soon for that. That would still be telling, not showing.
What we want is for the reader to make that connection for themselves.
That, my friends, is the essence of good writing. Good writers don’t paint pictures with their words. Instead that give their readers paint and brushes and a painting by numbers canvas.
You need to describe Ted in such a way that the reader can work out for themselves that he is not good with women because of his Star Trek addiction.
How do we do that?
One often overlooked technique is to insert a mini scene. Invent something for Ted to do which shows his Star Trek obsession. This is a standard Hollywood technique. Just about every film has a hero with a character flaw. It might be a cop with a fear of heights or an action hero who can’t relate to his son. And to present that character flaw, the writers will invent a mini scene to show it.
We can also include this information in how our characters dress and carry themselves. Ted might wear incredibly geeky t-shirts. He might slouch. Not wash very often. He might pepper his speech with Klingon words and notable quotes.
This might lead us to a scene like this:
“How was last night?” asked Bob.
“It was the weirdest thing,” said Ted. “We were having a great time. I told her all about the warp core and the Kobayashi Maru.”
“She was a librarian, wasn’t she?”
Ted shrugged. “I don’t know. We never got on to that. I taught her how to order a Romulan ale in Klingon. That was when it happened.”
“It happened? You mean … ‘it’? You’ve not had ‘it’ since ….”
Ted looked down at his four day old “Klingons do it at warp speed” t-shirt. “No. She … ah … she was abducted.”
“Abducted? Have you told the police?”
“Ah, the police. Yes, they got involved. She went to the restroom and never came back. So I tried to peek in through the door to check she was alright and …”
“Don’t say that you got yourself arrested. Again.”
This is very much a first draft and could certainly be improved. An even more vivid approach would be to show the scene directly with the ‘abducted’ librarian. But hopefully it shows that Ted was not very good with women without actually saying “Ted was not very good with women”.
It’s an odd thing. As writers, we desperately want our readers to “get” what we are saying. We want them to know that a particular character is heroic or clever or cunning or … whatever. But if we come straight out and say it, the reader can feel as if we are spoon feeding them.
So we show not tell and allow the readers to work it out for themselves.