Sunday, September 16, 2012

Less is Often More – The Art of Description

Life touches us in many ways, some good, some not so good. As a writer, I accept all experiences as the rich variance that makes life so precious. Cold helps to define hot. Sweet serves to illustrate sour or bitter.

Imagine a gray world in which vivid colors do not exist and all feelings temper within narrow limits. Love does not offset hate, because neither exists. In real life, grief contrasts elation, but neither extreme exists in this gray world. In my imaginary place, limits of emotions constrict into a blended sameness of dull conformity and feelings compress into a limited range of emotions with little room for comparison.

Someone I love suffered a massive stroke a week ago. All memory is gone…family names, my name, cherished moments in the past, personality quirks, even painful recollections…all vanished in a cerebral “blue screen of death.” For her, confusion replaced vibrancy. Her world morphed from rich fullness into the unnerving isolation of being a stranger in a confusing place. Rich history that once defined her life now exists only in scattered glimpses by a fragmented mind. In an unusual act of tenderness, Mother Nature blessed her with little cognitive function, protecting her from frightening realities.

I find myself selfishly obsessing over my own loss. Oh, what I would give for one more moment of recognition from her, a simple calling of my name and a brief, “I love you.” Alas, those words from her exist only in my own thoughts and in cherished memories of all who love her. Her mind has entered a gray world that protects her from anxiety and fear. For that, I am grateful. For that, I am also resentful. I want her back in her full glory, knowing that can never be.

As a writer, I see events differently than some people do. I don’t just live my life. I study life. Even now, as I live in the final time of a loved one, I find happiness in small blessings, albeit, some deeply veiled in the distracting fog of reality. For example, when I kissed her goodbye, perhaps for the last time, she told me she’ll miss me.

Odd, I thought to myself. She can’t even remember my name, but her last words to me are she will miss me. I wonder if she really understands . . . then again, I don’t care. It’s enough that she just said it.

Therein lays the blessing. While she does not comprehend her own fragile state, some deep core personality fragment still exists, enough to know she should miss me, but not enough to inflict emotional distress for her. For that natural protection, I am thankful. I do not want her to suffer.

I realize this is a writing blog, and I apologize. I should not use it to whine about my personal loss, but, I thought sharing the realities and lessons I’ve experienced with my loved one’s stroke, might illustrate wonderful depth for character building. The human experience in fiction should be as vivid to readers as my mother is to me. But, in writing, “less is sometimes more,” as exemplified by her simple, yet powerful, last comment to me . . . “I’ll miss you.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

More Show vs. Tell: Characterization

Terry W. Ervin, II, teaches English, writes books/articles/blogs, and is a local politician for his community.
Author Terry W. Irvin, II
Flank Hawk is Terry’s flagship book in the First Civilization’s Legacy series. It caught my interest a few years ago with its amazing characterization beginning on the very first page. Between a most creative plot and strong characters, I could not put the book down. I highly recommend it for anyone who likes fast pace, fleshed-out characters and unexpected twists.
I invited Terry as a master of characterization to do an interview for the benefit of my fellow writers. Here it is:

Dean:  Hi Terry, thank you for taking time out of your busy teaching and writing schedule to talk with us about characterization.

Terry:  It’s my pleasure. In addition to plot, character development drives my stories. Whether it is a main character like Krish, the unassuming hero in Flank Hawk, or the supporting role of the Colonel of the West and his gargoyle assistant/sidekick, characterization brings life to the story.

Dean:  I’ve read Flank Hawk and you’re right. All the characters felt real, despite vastly differing personalities and motivations. Characterization covers many topics. Can we narrow the scope of this conversation to the show versus tell concept?

Terry:  Sure, Dean. Characterization is an important element in almost every work of fiction, whether it is a short story, a novel, or anywhere in between. Writers have two options:

DIRECT CHARACTERIZATION, which tells what the character is like.

INDIRECT CHARACTERIZATION, which reveals information about a character and his personality through the character's thoughts, words, actions, and appearance. It also shows how others respond to that target person, including what they think and say about him.

Dean:  Is one method of characterization better than the other?

Terry:  An alert writer will recognize that the two methods of characterization fall under the decision to “show” or to “tell.” Indirect characterization “shows” the reader. Direct characterization “tells” the reader.

As with most “show” versus “tell” decisions, “showing” is more interesting and engaging to the reader, and should often be used in preference to “telling.”

Dean:  Does that relegate direct characterization to the prose trash heap?

Terry:  No. There are times when direct characterization is useful. Indirect characterization is more likely to engage a reader’s imagination and to paint more vivid and memorable images, but direct characterization excels in brevity, lower word count, and moving the story forward. It is up to the writer to decide when the use of each characterization method is appropriate.

Dean:  Can you offer some examples?

Terry:  Sure. Through the magic of internet interviews, I prepared two paragraphs below. Each conveys the same basic information, but one demonstrates direct characterization, while the other demonstrates indirect characterization.

Paragraph one:

Melvin King did not care for modern electronics and computers. He preferred the old days when a guy could work with tools in his hands and figure things out.

Paragraph two:

“That Melvin King,” said Sanderson, watching Melvin scratch his head in confusion at the engine diagnostic display. “He doesn’t have a clue when it comes to computers. Give him a manual, a set of wrenches, and an old engine that needs work, and he’d be happy as a hungry robin on a worm farm.”

Do you see the difference in quality of description versus efficiency in moving information? Both told the reader about Melvin, but one includes emotional impact while the other simply moves the plot forward as fast as possible.

Dean:  How do you decide which approach is best?

Terry:  The most appropriate method, and the amount of detail included, depends on the needs and concerns of the writer with respect to conveying necessary character information to the reader. I might answer this question with a reciprocal question. What does your story need? If the answer is to pick up the pace, then use direct characterization. If the author’s goal is to deepen the character/reader connection, then use indirect characterization.

Dean:  I think that makes it pretty clear.

Terry:  Indirect versus direct characterization is really just another writing tool that all authors should master and use with intent.

Dean:  Thank you for sharing your expertise, Terry.

Terry:  You’re welcome, Dean. Thank you for inviting me.
Dean . . . my closing thoughts:
Flank Hawk is a must read in the fantasy genre. To borrow Ronald Reagan's expression, it's a "darn good yarn," but it also serves as an excellent role model for aspiring writers on how to build compelling characters.
Blood Sword, the sequel to Flank Hawk released ten months ago, so you don't have to wait to find out what happens next in the series.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Show, don’t tell? Maybe not!

All writers have heard that nagging admonition, “Show, don’t tell.” But, does it always make sense?
Writing tools of "show" or "tell" serve important and very different purposes. They complement each other, and when used with skill, they advance a plot effectively.
Showing creates emotion in readers—that flush of heat in a woman reader’s face while experiencing a torrid seduction scene, or anger shared with a main character who suffers the sting of torture at the hands of a hated antagonist. “Showing” supplies details of the character’s experiences in such a way as to allow the reader to supply emotional reaction.
Telling does not trust readers to reach the author’s desired emotion. Instead, it “tells” readers how to feel. On the surface, this sounds less effective, but there are two distinct benefits of doing so. First, telling is efficient. It wastes no words and pushes plot forward with as little loss of reading time as possible. Second, telling moderates the relentless emotional assault of showing by creating a welcome break for readers in an otherwise fast-paced, emotion-laden story.

Pretty simple, huh? Showing generates emotion in readers. Telling moves the story faster and reduces emotional impact. When combined properly, storytelling wins.
Let’s have a little literary fun with an example.
Tell:  Mary saw Matthew's body as she entered the room. She dropped to her knees and gagged, nauseated by the smell. Vowing retaliation for the killing of her only brother, she promised to deliver revenge against her brother’s killer, Demonis Maximus.
Show:  "Oh, my God", Mary said upon entering the room. She dropped to her knees, ignoring the growing pool of Matthew’s still warm blood. Brushing back flies that swarmed on his wound, the stench of death gagged her. The dead man’s youngest sister shook her fist in the air. “My brother’s murder came by your hand, Demonis Maximus,” her words forced through clenched teeth. “I swear on the grave of our mother, you shall die by my doing.”
Which is best? Showing her angst . . . or telling the reader of her pain and promise of revenge.
Answer - NEITHER.
If this drama is not essential to advancing the plot, then it must be informational in nature serving only to link more important plot elements. In that case, telling advances the story faster and does not generate wasted words for the reader or unnecessary emotional angst.

On the other hand, what if the plot relies on Mary’s hatred for Demonis Maximus to provide motive? Or, perhaps the writer’s goal is as simple as character develop in building compassion for Mary. In either case, her reaction to Matthew’s death should be “felt” by the reader. "Showing" the MC’s suffering allows the reader to share the same breadth of emotions as Mary did.
One word of caution—"telling" can insult a reader's intelligence. If the author does not trust readers to experience the desired impact, and simply tells them what to think, then some readers will drift out of emotional connection with the main character(s) or the storyline. By the same token, excessive "showing" can get annoying. Meaningless dialog, or repetitive, yet unnecessary drama, actually diminishes impact as it wastes the reader's time.
These distinctions of show or tell apply to omniscient narration as well. A narrator can say (telling) it was a beautiful day, or this unseen story-teller can describe elements of a beautiful day (showing) and trust the reader to reach the desired conclusion.
Show or tell? That is the secret of the best-selling authors I have read. Every great writer seems to find just the right balance between showing and telling. They know when to ramp up the emotional impact with dramatic showing and when to “tell” the plot forward to give the reader a breather before the next high-energy scene.
Understand the difference between these important skills, and use them with purpose, not by accident. Oh, and by all means, TRUST your readers.