Writing to the
By Kathy Krajco
a medium of communication. Every art form is a language. Each language has
its possibilities and limitations.
Novelists work with words. In some ways this art form is the least limited
in the types of information it can convey. For example, though the visual
arts (like photography, sculpture, and painting) give us access to the
subject's inner person, only words can take us right into her head. Yet
literature has its limitations, too. Since the advent of moving pictures
these limitations have become a big disadvantage. Unless your novel really
gives today's readers something more, something worth the effort of
reading, they would rather watch a movie or television program.
Therefore, today, novels simply must make readers visualize immediate
moment-to-moment action. Your stage/screen is the image-ination. It's a part
of the reader's brain you must get and keep control of. By the power of
suggestion, words paint pictures there. To make readers "get the picture,"
how important writing this way is, let's consider how much a playwright or
screen writer shows -- instead of just having some character tell
Offstage and Onstage Action
stage or screen we witness most of the story. Occasionally, some
action takes place offstage, and we learn of it through hearsay. For
example, in Hamlet, we don't witness what happens on Hamlet's voyage
to England. But we do know that Claudius has arranged for his murder there.
So, we see Hamlet reach the coast, thunder his great soliloquy, and embark.
Then, back at the ranch...
Shakespeare lazy? Did he leave out this exciting action to shorten the play?
No, he had good reasons to keep that action offstage. By doing so, he
eliminated material unnecessary to prove his premise. Also, by not showing
what happens next -- by skipping that scene and jumping ahead to what
happens weeks later in Denmark -- he maximizes the plot's dramatic impact.
stage and screen, some scenes are left out for good storytelling reasons.
Nonetheless, notice that Shakespeare puts the lion's share of the story in
immediate scene on stage. He relates only bits of it through
narrative summary. Indeed, think how boring a play or movie would be if
many things happened offstage and the characters just told us about them!
most of a story on stage or screen is immediate scene (or dramatic
form), and some is narrative summary (or narrative form). In a
novel, there's no set, so a third mode of conveying information is
Readers prefer immediate scene as much as a theater audience does. In fact,
to get published today, the bulk of a novel's text must be immediate scene,
with brief narrative summary only when appropriate, and with brief
descriptions brought to life by filtering them through a character's
Immediate scene plays in the reader's imagination. That's the novelist's
stage or screen. Now, if we're to write to the imagination, we must first
understand how it works.
process words as language in the frontal lobe of the brain. We do it the way
a computer processes computer language. As we mature, we become increasingly
able to process words another way, too: as raw stimuli. This happens as we
accumulate a vast store of experiences in memory farther back. They are
networked words, images, sounds, and so forth -- a relational database.
this farther-back part of the brain to visualize. It's the image-ination.
It develops through use, so it doesn't fully develop until a person is in
her or his mid-twenties. That is, it doesn't fill in with gray matter (an
intricate network of connections among brain cells) till then.
see how words work on each of these parts of the brain.
you ask a teenager whether eating a cockroach is a good or a bad idea, she
has no knee-jerk reaction to the question. That's because she processes your
sentence as language, in the front of her brain. Considering that brain
cells transmit information at hundreds of feet per second, she takes much
longer to come up with an answer than an adult does. And she doesn't have
the same reaction to the question that an adult does. She just
matter-of-factly replies that eating a cockroach is a bad idea. In contrast,
an adult does have a knee-jerk reaction to the question. He not only
responds much more quickly, he screws up his face and says, "Yuck!"
Because he doesn't process your words as language in the front of the brain.
Your question lights up brain cells farther back, in the area that houses
the imagination. So, he doesn't analyze the question, he experiences
it: He sees a cockroach, feels its mushiness inside, and feels its
skittering legs clawing his tongue.
Children have imaginations, too. But their imaginations haven't yet
accumulated a vast store of experiences to reference and aren't yet
networked with words. So, you can't stimulate a child's imagination the way
you can an adult's. (That's why children's books need pictures.) If that
teenager does imagine eating a cockroach, she doesn't do so automatically,
as a knee-jerk reaction: she must make a conscious effort to imagine eating
one. Even then, she won't have as vivid an experience as an adult does.
Experts think this is why teenagers and children show "poor judgment."
Adults may make no greater effort to think before acting, but they
automatically imagine an act before doing it. They therefore see what could
go wrong and get this warning in a way that has much greater impact that
pure logical analysis would.
so, if words don't stimulate the imagination, they are processed as language
in the front of the brain.
fiction writer, that vivid experience in the imagination is what you're
after. You must write in a way that stimulates it. You must write in a way
that makes the reader unaware of the words on the page, a way that makes him
visualize the story as if it were taking place on a stage or a screen
in his mind. Doing so sucks him into your story so that he becomes absorbed
in what we call the Fictive Dream. This is like a daydream, except that you,
the author of the story, make it up.
How to Show Instead of Telling
you write to the imagination? Well, here's how you don't:
He was nervous.
here's how you do:
He drummed his
fingers on the table.
process the first sentence in the frontal lobe of your brain. You process
the second in your imagination. That's because, in the second, I gave it
something visual and auditory to work with. That sentence made you see and
hear his fingers drumming on a table. In the first sentence I told you he
was nervous. In the second, I showed you he was nervous. Hence the adage:
show instead of tell.
another example of how to show instead of tell:
He told her to shut
"Shut the door," he
first sentence I tell you that he told her to shut the door. In the second
sentence I show you that he told her to shut the door. You process the first
sentence as language in the frontal lobe. You process the second quicker, in
your imagination, where you see and hear him telling her to shut the door.
were simple examples. Here is another that shows how to give the imagination
enough to work with so the reader "gets the picture."
came out of the Metro before the Cathedral of Notre Dame and approached it.
The sound of its bells was deafening.
came up into sunlight before Notre Dame's dizzying facade, where the
deafening thunder of its bells shook the ground. But she walked right
through the downward reverberating sound without it altering the beat of her
account would you rather read? Which puts you there?
of the trade can help you spot and fix places where your writing tells
instead of shows. They can also help you enhance the reader's experience by
making it more vivid. But memorizing these tricks won't give you that last
sample of prose. Only your imagination can. You need a lively imagination
both to know what stimulates imagination and to vividly imagine a scene
yourself. For, as Shakespeare often said, imagination is what distinguishes
those who write well from those who don't.
Degrees of Showing
words show more vividly than others. Consider the evolutionary sequence of
She hit the
She hit the
Shows a little.
She hit a
She whacked a
topspin forehand down the line.
ended the point by rolling the ball crosscourt with a grunting
Shows more than one thing.
first sentence speaks in generalities too broad to suggest a picture. We
don't know whether she hits a baseball, a softball, a volleyball, a tennis
ball, or perhaps even a basketball.
second sentence is still vague, but it does give the imagination just enough
to work with. So, we vaguely see her with a racket hitting a tennis ball.
Yet we don't know whether she's hitting a forehand, backhand, volley, or
serve. Chances are that, by default, we'll see her hitting a forehand. But
this may not be an accurate picture.
third sentence gives us a definite picture. But nothing else.
fourth sentence brings the picture to life with a precise verb. This
sentence shows vividly because it shows how and where she hit the ball. It
also begins to involve us with the character by giving us a sense of her
feelings. We can see that she isn't engaged in a lazy Sunday-afternoon hit.
She wants something (to win) and that makes her interesting.
fifth sentence shows even more vividly because it also describes her swing
and because it involves us more intimately with the character. In fact, it
characterizes her, not just her shot, by showing her great
determination and effort. The author of the last sentence needn't tell
you that she is a competitive person who plays aggressively with great
determination and effort: the author shows you that.
gradually improved those five versions of that sentence? A progression from
generalities to specific, particular, concrete details.
When the Authorís Voice Intrudes
author of a story, you are like the wizard of Oz. From behind a curtain, you
create, project, and manipulate the illusion of the Great Oz in your
reader's imagination. Itís a spell. Don't break it. So, let Oz do all the
talking... straight to the imagination.
writing is then projecting a movie onto the screen of the reader's
imagination. Having this experience on the other side of the curtain, she's
unaware of you. If any information comes from the author instead of a
character (including the narrator), she hears your voice coming from
nowhere. That intrusion interrupts the Fictive Dream (i.e., breaks the
spell) and ends suspension of disbelief, just as when Toto the dog exposed
the Wizard of Oz by pulling aside the curtain he was hiding behind. Poof --
the end of the Great Oz.
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