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Show And Tell

Authors are continually told to show what characters are thinking and feeling through their actions, rather than exposition. But, as discussed in the posts this week regarding romantic scenes and those that depict mundane human actions, sometimes authors can overshare.   So what does showing look like when it’s done right? I asked the MissDemeanors to weigh in with some of their favorite examples.  C. Michele Dorsey: My favorite example of showing but not telling comes from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Almost the entire book takes place after a tragic event in which Theo, our hero, loses his mother. Rather than have him tell us about his relationship with her, Tartt shows us by taking us with them on a cab ride and to a museum. Their conversations and reactions to one another show us who they were to one another and brilliantly bond us to Theo for the remainder of what is a very long saga and book. The flavor of the mother/son relationship permeates the entire book. I’m in awe of how she does it. Of course, it does take Tartt ten years to write a a book.  Susan Breen: One of my favorite “showing” examples comes from Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. There’s a scene where the protagonist,Clarice Starling, is talking to Hannibal Lechter. He asks her if she’s injured herself. She’s surprised he knows, mentions that she has a cut. How do you know? Because I smell the bandaid, he says. That shows so much about him. He has extraordinary sensory abilities. He’s creepy. He keeps her off balance. It’s a small detail, but it gets me, and my students, every time. It’s those perfect little details! Robin Stuart: There are so many great examples, it’s hard to choose just one. I think the unreliable narrator is made possible by showing vs. telling. We reveal ourselves more honestly through our actions, regardless of who we may “say” we are. An example is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Amy tells us who she wants us to believe she is, reinforcing that belief through anecdotes to show us that persona in action, and later slaps us in the face with who she really is. That’s as far as I’ll go on that example, in case there’s someone reading this post who hasn’t read the book yet 🙂 A simple example of the power and engagement of showing, as opposed to telling, is when one character describes another. It’s how we learn who they are to each other. “Jane couldn’t help but notice John was a bear of a man,” is flat. It makes the reader ask “what” questions instead of tantalizing them with “why’s.” What does a “bear of a man” mean to Jane and what did she notice? The only “why” is why the reader should care. “The car sagged under John’s bulk as he squeezed into the passenger seat beside Jane. He slumped down to keep the top of his head from hitting the roof.” Now we see what the author wants to convey, that this John guy is one big dude. We’re engaged as a reader by feeling the car sag. And now we have more interesting questions. Is Jane intimidated or comforted by his size? Are they adversaries or partners? Showing just enough to play fair is how we drop breadcrumbs that lead to plot twists. We place clues in plain view but play down the focus. The movie “Widows” has some fantastic examples, based on a great, twisty book by Lynda La Plante, adapted by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen. Anything I say will be a spoiler so just go read it/see it.  D.A. Bartley: This is a hard question for me because I find myself ambivalent about preferencing showing over telling. Some writers tell things beautifully. Having said that, I owe you an answer. I’m reading November Road right now. Lou Berney masterfully shows and tells, but here’s a good example of the former: “He unscrewed the lid with his teeth. He shook tablets into his mouth and chewed them.” Even without me explaining anything about the scene, you already know this guy’s in pain, and his situation is so desperate he can’t even get a glass of water. Brilliant. Alexia Gordon: I had trouble with this one. I had a hard time coming up with an example. As Walter Moseley (sort of) said at Crime Bake, if I can spot your narrative device, you did it wrong. I know I’ve read books where the author showed me something about the character instead of telling me but they executed it with such skill, I didn’t consciously notice that was what they were doing. Robin’s remarks about a character showing us their personality through their descriptions of other characters reminded me of the protagonist, Toby, in Tana French’s The Witch Elm. Without coming right out and saying this guy’s a jerk, French does a good job of showing his jerk-ness (jerkitude?) through his self-serving descriptions of others and his surprise at people’s reactions to his bad behavior. By about fifteen pages in, I felt like punching Toby in the throat. Before I thought of Toby, I thought of a person I know IRL who’s a good example of show, don’t tell. (I so want to put this man in a book.) He’s a big guy with a thick Russian accent who grew up in Siberia (no lie), which is a place that makes the South Side of Chicago seem like Utopia. I wouldn’t repeat some of the stories he’s told (except the one about walking to school for miles through the snow–really). He’s also evil-genius smart. (More stories I wouldn’t repeat.) This is not a man you want to cross. His email signature block says, “The Mad Russian”. You think you’ve figured him out, then you stop by his office where one of the first things you notice on his desk is his “meow” mug. He has a handmade pottery mug with a cat’s face and the word “meow” on its side. (Imagine a movie with a Russian kingpin. Then imagine that kingpin ruling over his empire with a meow mug in his hand.) Meow mug? Seriously? The Mad Russian drinks his coffee from a mug with the word “Meow” on the side? Turns out he’s kind, generous, loyal, hard working, funny, and considerate. He’s the guy who will call to check on you if you call out sick from work and offer to bring you groceries. If you need a ride someplace, he’s your man. If you’re short-handed and there’s extra work to be done, he’ll do it. If some creep bothers you in a bar, he’s the guy who’d–never mind, let’s not go there. And the mug? It’s because he likes cats. He and his wife have two between them. (Why does he like cats? Because they’re the only animal he’s never been able to break. This statement is always followed by the story of how his cat won the battle of the attempted cat food change.) He’d be either the perfect Bond villain or the perfect lead detective in a Cold War-era Soviet police procedural. Cate Holahan: I would read about the Mad Russian show or tell, Alexia. And I totally agree with you D.A. on November Road. I read it too and the gangster character is a great example, I think, of showing not telling. You see his heart growing by his actions and not the dialogue. Loved it.     

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3 Things I Know About The Future… From Dystopian Fiction

A critical part of creating fiction is a careful examination of the world. Storytellers, first and foremost, must be students of the human experience. We have to spend time learning about what motivates people, how different personality types tend to form and respond to situations, how various societies react to different stimuli and challenges, how the setting we all share (the earth) responds to our existence. Sometimes this intense study leads to forecasting rather than fiction. Here are three inventions by famous authors that look like they will definitely come true–for better or worse.  #1. Meat won’t come from live animals.  In her book, Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood writes about chicken that is grown in parts by machines. Her ChickieNobs don’t have eyes or beaks, though they have a mouth-like orifice for receiving tubes of nutrients. It’s meat without the animal.  Such “nobs” are not a reality–yet. But since the 2003 publication of her book, “cultured meat” has been cloned from the muscle cells of beef cows. The process isn’t exactly like the blobs with tubes sticking out of them that Atwood envisioned, but when you hear about the “tubes” of muscle tissue that are grown and stacked to create one of these burgers, she doesn’t sound far off.   Personally, I’d like to eat protein that doesn’t involve killing a living creature. But, I wouldn’t want the dystopian future of genetic engineering run amok that Chickienobs is created in. So I hope Atwood’s prescience only extends to our food.  #2. Ads will know what I’m thinking Thanks to trading my privacy for a host of “free” and inexpensive services, like Web email and online-connected intelligent speakers, corporations can easily collect a lot of data about me. Right now, they don’t seem to use it for much more than delivering Web page ads about things I have Googled, mentioned in emails, or asked “Alexa” about. But, according to Matthew Tobin Anderson, writer of 2002’s “Feed,” eventually I’ll get such personalized ads directly into my head.  In Anderson’s fiction, the ads are delivered by an implanted chip in my brain. In reality, I think, facial recognition and biometric identification will advance to the point that nearby computers will simply be able to link who I am–based on what I’ve touched and my face–to an advertiser profile formed from records of my online interactions. My personal ads will appear on the nearest available screen. Given advances in virtual reality, that screen might very well be right in front of my eyes in the form of some Google Glass-type device. And, in my opinion, such a “feed” directly in my line of sight isn’t so far off from a brain implant.  #3. The Great Flood Will Come… To Manhattan This prediction from Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is one of the most heartbreaking for me personally as someone who lived in NYC for a decade and now has a house in the suburbs about a mile from The Hudson River. But I believe it. Water levels are rising. The world is most certainly getting warmer–even if President Donald Trump remains skeptical as to the cause.   I’ve also seen The Hudson overflow its banks before. During Super Storm Sandy, I had to take my then baby to the second floor of my waterfront condo because the waves of water were coming dangerously close to the elevated first floor windows. Somehow, I didn’t flood. But neighbors on the ground floor lost their apartments. (And, yes, I should have evacuated like I’d been warned instead of just moving the car to higher ground and hoping for the best).  Robinson’s predictions are particularly dire–a NYC under water creates for a better story than one slowly eroding beneath the river. But I’d bet that a future in which Manhattan is dealing with a flooded sea port and financial district isn’t too far off.             

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Sweet Dreams Are Made of These

My subconscious is on some serious stuff. It must take it while I’m asleep.  Last night, I woke up to the frightening music of my dog’s intestinal track (if you have been fortunate enough to have a dog live past ten years, then you understand). As a result, I remembered my ENTIRE dream . I was in Jamaica, chatting with my dead grandfather. He gave me sugar bun, a Jamaican concoction that is exactly what it sounds like: a bread, “bun”, made with raisins and glazed with sugar. I then took my kids out into the backyard where he showed me rabbits dressed up in human clothing, much to my children’s delight. My husband insisted that he had to go because hanging out with dead people was giving him the willies. I let him go and ate the bun.  This will make it’s way into a story–mark my words.  The story for my last thriller, Lies She Told, came to me in a dream–partially. I went to bed, after a glass of red wine, thinking about where I would get my next thriller idea from and I had a nightmare about this woman in a seedy Brooklyn apartment with blood on her hands. I felt that I was watching her from above or slightly over her shoulder. Close third person, in other words. She didn’t look like me, but I had the sense that she was me. And, after that, I wrote a thriller about a writer and the character in her head that may, or may not, be based on her–perhaps without her consent or conscious knowledge.  A lot of art, I believe, is taking what our subconscious mind gives us and rationalizing it until we have something that translates into a kind of story for broader consumption.  It’s late. I wonder what I’ll dream up next…    

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What's Your Writing Schedule

I got eight hours of sleep yesterday!!!!! It’s exciting because, for the past month, my writing schedule has had me on two.   I needed to finish a book this month so that I could return to working on an edit for my fourth book, which I hadn’t been anticipating would be as extensive as it turned out.  As a result, my writing schedule was 8:30 to 3:00 (6.5 hours) and then again from 8p.m. to 5 p.m. (9 hours) during the week. On the weekends, I was trying to squeeze five hours per day in. It was crazy and unsustainable past a month, but it did enable me to get this book that had been burning in my brain into a word document. Now, I am back to working on an edit that I anticipate I’ll have six weeks to finish. I am hoping that I’ll be able to work 8:30 to 6:00, a more normal schedule for me.  It’s important for me that I write every weekday. As a former journalist, I grew accustomed to writing a couple thousand words each day and I like keeping that up. I also find that forcing myself to write each day keeps writer’s block at bay. It’s not an option to not write, so I can’t be blocked. I might not write anything good. I might throw it out by the end of the week. But, at least I put something down on paper and got my mind working.  Every now and then, like this past month, I write like a fever. And now I have another book (or at least the first draft of one)  What’s your writing schedule?    

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Have Laptop Will Travel

I have lived in the same two states my entire life: New Jersey and New York. More specifically, I have lived in Manhattan or within ten miles of it for my entire childhood and adult life (save for four years of college in Princeton, NJ, which wasn’t really that much farther).  I set many of my books in these two states because I’m most familiar with them. After a decade in the city, I feel like I have a handle on the culture of Manhattan and, even more so, its suburban environs where I live and grew up. As a writer and a person, I’m comfortable in my area.  But that very comfort is the reason why I must travel. I need to see other places to gain perspective on the location that most often serves as the backdrop to my stories. When I don’t visit other places for awhile, I can become so immersed in my home that I can’t recognize anymore what’s unique or strange or beautiful or nutty about it. Writers need the ability to see a place as both an outsider and an insider. We need to have the accuracy that comes from immersion but also the distance to point out what makes a place special.  Recently, I went to Chattanooga TN to see my mother-in-law compete in a half Iron Man.  (Side note: if the world ever devolves into a Walking Dead situation, I’m on her team). The place has all these incredible rock formations and a mountain cave system complete with an beautiful underground waterfall that really should be the setting for a dark thriller–albeit not one that I would write since it would probably devolve into a Raft of The Medusa situation and I don’t do that kind of gore. Still… The city is also incredibly active. Everywhere, people are biking, rock climbing, running, kayaking, and just, generally, hanging outside.  I don’t know if I’ll ever set a story in Chattanooga, but going there did help me see how sedentary life in my home state of New Jersey is, particularly when the weather gets colder. We drive to indoor places or stay in our houses. When we need to work out, we drive to the gym. Seeing it, reminded me of how any story that I set in New Jersey really needs to note the driving culture. If there’s a book set in NJ and someone is not running around in an SUV, then it’s not really set in NJ.  It also reminded me of how active I was living in the New York City. I walked everywhere. Ten blocks. Twenty Blocks. Fifty blocks, in nice weather. I would walk from Battery Park to the Upper East Side on a beautiful day. Why take a cab? I’d walk five blocks in rainy weather to duck into the subway (impossible to catch a cab).  If a story is in Manhattan and it involves someone driving anywhere save for outside of Manhattan, it’s not a story in Manhattan. *Unless that story is Taxi Driver.  What is something that you learned about your favorite setting about being away for awhile? What place have you travelled to that had helped enrich your perspective.      

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Trusting Your Gut

As a journalist and now author, I’ve had more than a dozen editors. The best ones finessed my writing and ideas, getting the best story possible out of me and my research. The worst ones used me as a living tool to tell the story they wanted in their voices. The former resulted in some of my best work. The latter in some of my worst. I strongly subscribe to the every writer needs an editor doctrine. But I also believe that every writer needs an editor that respects him or her enough to bring out the best in the individual author. Writers need the freedom to tell their stories the way that resonates with them. The editor can help focus an author’s ideas and tell him or her where they are losing the reader, where the characters are falling flat, where the scene isn’t translating, etc. But the editor shouldn’t use the writer to tell the story in his or her head. It won’t work. It will read as strained as the process of creating the story will invariably become.     

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