Monday, April 11, 2011

Balancing the Elements

This morning I read an article on editing and it suggested that Show Don't Tell is not the only rule in the book. It isn't, but that has been the rule for a very long time. I didn't know that Sol Stein and Donald Maass popularized the technique to "modernize storytelling." As the author suggested, we need to be more catholic in our tastes and styles of writing and embrace more than one style.

The short story I spent the weekend critiquing is predominantly dialogue with no sense of place or time or much in the way or characterization. All the characters nod, grin, shrug and sigh with nearly every confrontation, which is pretty much all interactions. Only a couple of characters had any real quirks or speech patterns that set them apart from the rest and that's because their dialogue was written in colloquial style. There are a few descriptions of the ship, as would be expected in a space opera, but very few of those. The main character checks his appearance in a mirror at the beginning of a story and describes what he sees, but other than a few brief remarks about a couple of characters, there is no real sense of how the characters move, talk, react or are and even less to set the scene or give a sense of place and space to the environs.

The other big problem is that the dialogue is used as an information dump for the background of the story and there is very little action except in one short sequence. It reads more like a script than a short story and I found myself writing "show don't tell" or "show me how he moves and acts" more than once, outside of adding comments about "grinning again, nodding again, sighing again" in almost every line on every page. There is no emotional range and I do not feel connected to these characters. Now I wonder if telling the writer to show me what's happening and how the characters inhabit the space of the story is wrong.

Uh, no.

While there is room still for Show Don't Tell, there is also room for exposition, something that particular piece lacks. Don't tell me the character grinned when you just told me the other character grinned and the character in the next second grinned and sighed without telling me how they looked and how their grins are different. Give me something to work with. Is that wrong? Do we expect too much of our characters? Wasn't Shakespeare able to convey in dialogue alone what Tybalt and Puck and Henry V were like? Yes, but he was Shakespeare and he knew how to write.

What I strive for in my own writing is balance between dialogue, description, inner monologue, and exposition. It's not easy and I do struggle with it some times, but I do have more of a grip on facial expressions and emotions than grinning, nodding, sighing and shrugging. I expect more from my reading that such generic and unimaginative terms and reactions. It is as if the writer took no effort with building characters and used stock phrases and words to convey his meaning. I doubt he really has a handle on the characters except as pawns in his own science fiction chess game, and very little imagination except for technical details.

While I don't dislike the story of a 100-year-old battle cruiser running a plague beacon and waiting to be found and returned to its planet before the surrounding systems can glom onto it and use it against the rest of the universe, I want more than dialogue and vague facts. I want to be engaged. I want to be able to lose myself in the story and not run headlong into a brick wall of typos, information dumps and bland characters. I want action. I want life. I want a good story that isn't ruined by its lack of attention to detail. I want him to show me something or at least tell me something good.

Do we ask too much of writers so that we end up with a generic soup of writing that is formulaic and unimaginative? I wonder.

I have two novels currently jostling for position inside my mind (more, if the truth be told). One is a post apocalyptic vampire story that is anything but run-of-the-mill vampires. Imagine an earth where here has been eternal winter for 200 years and humans living underground and guided by vampires, while on the surface of the planet in domed cities vampires rule humanity, cloning and raising them to do the menial tasks and provide a steady supply of food. As the earth begins to warm and come out of nuclear winter and the underground humans return to the surface to begin life anew, they need one thing, DNA to re-establish plant, animal and human life, information contained in DNA banks beneath the domed cities. The vampires in the domed cities need fresh DNA because they have cloned the clones until there are too many replication errors and the blood is thin. They need food.

The other novel is a Victorian gothic where morals and science and superstition collide until a man is split and a serial killer spawned.

Each novel requires different styles and techniques, but the one thing that remains the same is the need to put the reader in the scene and let him feel and sense everything that is happening. The reader needs to be invested in the story. Can the reader lose himself if the book is all dialogue or if he is bogged down in exposition and description? I doubt it. The real techniques lie somewhere in between, a balance of style and Show Don't Tell and pacing that is matched to the story and the time period. Therein lies the hard part, finding that balance.

In the end, it's all about what the reader needs and how the writer can provide that. The writer must craft his tale so that it's something he would enjoy reading as much as he enjoyed writing it. Editing, that's never fun and is something else again.

I can write a whole book in two weeks and get the structure laid out, but it takes a bit more time to find the balance and add muscle, sinews, nerve and flesh to the bones. It takes even more to add style and flair and clothe the characters; that's where polish comes in, and where I balance all the elements as best I can.

I doubt I'll give up the tenets of Show Don't Tell, but I'm also not averse to using whatever techniques and style will create a book that I want to read when I'm finished, balancing all the elements until the book is worth reading.

No comments: