It’s a tremendous comfort to count on having fascinating discussions related to writing each time our circle meets. That was certainly the case yesterday.
We talked about how often, the author’s intentions are quite different from what the reader takes away. There are all kinds of reasons for this but ultimately, what seems most important is that the author has clarity about the key points that compose the core of the writing. So, for example, one of my main intentions in writing Painted Deserts is explained by the line, “We’re all deserters, prettied up with surface paint.” That message is rather personal and abstract. It would not be “realistic” to expect anyone else to intuit that intention. As an aside, I’ll also say that I know there is an audience for what I write though I do not systematically attempt to define them. It’s become enough for me to know (based on experience) that books sometimes adhere to the “reality” that not only does the teacher appear when the student is ready, but the teacher must also be prepared to meet the student. In other words, books have a rather whimsical way of showing up in our lives.
Regarding intensity, we also discussed the tendency to stockpile all of the drama for later in the book rather than unleashing it from the first chapter. This “stockpiling” diminishes the intensity of the book and can easily fall prey to the trap of convenience and protection. Convenience allows the writer to lay things out very neatly in ways that are inconsistent with the sometime-messiness of “real” life. For example, say a “good”’ character has decided to attempt to escape a dangerous situation. There is a sometimes irresistible tendency to protect the character and stack up details so that everything goes smoothly. This contradicts the “reality” that readers (and authors) know to be likely.
These concepts—intention, intensity, convenience, and protection—are tightly coupled with balancing showing and telling as the story develops. In the example of the “good” character, once the author has decided on that “goodness,” the reader needs to be shown qualities that are consistent with that way of being. In doing this, sometimes writers tell before showing and ultimately discover that “showing” is all that’s needed. Here’s an example:
Suzette is such a good person. Suzette takes care of everyone and is loved by all.
See how that first (telling) sentence is unnecessary?
Our task as writers is to do more showing than telling in order to articulate our intentions; let readers feel the intensity of emotions; avoid convenience; and be aware of when and why we tend toward protecting our characters. Showing empowers the reader to come to her or his own conclusions once we, as authors, have provided them with enough information to understand the various aspects of the story.
This exchange continues in a conversation with Kyle Kesses.