Sunday, October 17, 2010

Writing Advice, Cont'd: How to "Show, Don't Tell"

Holy crap I can't believe I left this one out when I wrote my post on writing advice.  This one is so f*cking important that I'm giving it its own post.

#8:  PUT IT IN THE BODY
.  Most likely I forgot it because it has become so ingrained in the way I think about writing.  My teacher, Ron Carlson, said, "When you don't know how to say something, put it in the body."  He was talking specifically about the body of your characters: instead of describing an emotion, describe the way your character's body expresses that emotion.  Instead of saying, "She felt defeated," you say, "She slumped in her chair and poured herself a shot of Jack Daniel's."  Same emotion, except you can relate, simply because you have once slumped in your chair and poured yourself a shot of Jack Daniel's in defeat, even if you didn't feel defeated by the same situation.  Doing this draws on the parallel experiences of your readers instead of depending on the importance of the situation in your own writing.  For example, I have never liked Pigs in Heaven as much as The Bean Trees, and I think it's because in Pigs In Heaven Barbara Kingsolver is relying on the inherent understanding of a mother's love for her child.  But I don't know what it's like to be a mother, so I can't relate, and she doesn't put it in the body enough for me to be able to relate.  In The Bean Trees, the main character is overwhelmed by the experiences she goes through, and Kingsolver describes that very clearly. Plus, I definitely know what it's like to be overwhelmed.
    This is why Twilight was so successful; Stephenie Meyer may have overused her adverbs, but by God she could put an emotion in the body.  She knew how to make you feel like you were seventeen and in love, or heartbroken.  None of her readers has ever fallen in love with a vegetarian vampire, but they've blushed furiously every single time a particular person looks at them a certain way.
   This is also something Jane Austen totally sucked at, but she was super good at pretty much everything else so it didn't matter.  That, however, is a combination of talents unlikely to grace another writer, ever, and so even if you think you're super good at everything else, put your character's emotions in their body, anyway.

    But I have found that this advice of putting it in the body applies to other types of "bodies," as well: your plot should be expressed in the "body" of the world you are building, the setting.  Think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I've never read it but the entire plot has been actively described for me by numerous persons): as the book reaches its climax, so, also, does the landscape around them climb higher and higher.  They reach the continental divide just about the same time they reach the climax.  Your setting can do a better job of reflecting the events of your book than probably anything else.
     Your characters should be expressed through the "body" of their world: the objects around them (this is also known as inventory). Hands-down best example of this, ever, is Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.  All of his characters are male soldiers, of nearly the same age, and wearing the same clothes, but he lists every single damn thing they own and you come to know them that way.  One keeps a bag of weed on him at all times.  One carries a picture of the girl he's in love with.  One keeps extra food.  This tells us more about the characters than any description he could have written: it's a picture, worth a thousand words.  When you're limited to carrying thirty pounds, and you only have two or three to spare, which items will you bring?  That's what your reader needs to know about your characters; and it will make your readers think of what they would bring, too.  Objects are universally symbolic.  Use them. 
And the emotion of the work, the heart of it, should be expressed in the "body" of the text: the language.  This is where tone comes in.  If you are writing a children's book about the perils of not cleaning your room, your word choice sure as hell better be different than if you are writing an adult novel about dealing with rape.  This is the difference between the following: pranced, ambled, shuffled, strolled.  The connotation of each one of these words is different; you should know the connotation of each of them, and use it to your advantage.  One belongs in a story about rape.  A different one belongs in a kid's book.  Ideally speaking, every single word in your book should be the right word for that book.  It's not going to happen, but, you know, shoot for the moon and you'll land in a horse's ass.  Or however that saying goes.

I can't think of a better piece of writing advice than "put it in the body," because this is what agents and editors mean when they say, "show, don't tell," which is a cute little catchphrase, but it doesn't tell you how to do it.  "Put it in the body," however, does.

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