Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

You know, I was reading this absolutely wonderful interview with writer Yiyun Li over at Fiction Writers Review when I stumbled upon yet another award winning author speaking the truth about writing. I will share this snippet and everyone can then pop over and read the entire interview, as it is very informative.

In this part of the interview Ms. Li was asked what she felt the difference was between writing a screenplay and writing a novel, and her answer, of course, did not surprise me:

[...] when your characters talk all the time, actors cannot act, directors cannot direct.” Which was illuminating to me. I realized it’s the same thing. When you write fiction, you’re always told to show not tell, which I strongly disagree with. We say “storyteller,” we never say “storyshower,” because stories are told, not shown. In any case, I went back to the screenplay. Wayne was very helpful. He said, “I want forty percent of silence in your script. Forty percent of silence—they cannot talk.” I realize that when they don’t talk, you’re actually writing about real things. You’re doing a lot of summary, too, and that’s a very important skill in fiction. You don’t have to show everything. I know that’s what a lot of younger writers would say. They would give you dialogue to give you information, which is the most inefficient and artificial way to give information, right? You can just tell your readers. So I did a few drafts of the screenplay, and I thought, Oh, this is so easy. This is exactly as when you write a story. You choose what to show and what to tell.

Wow! Actually writing about real things, she says. So, how many award winning writers have to say this before we all stop listing to that crap writing cliché???? If I hear one more literary ignoramus spout off about writing in scenes to avoid the craptapularly heinous info-dump, I am going to projectile vomit my disdain all over them -- with chunks of greasy bile thrown in for good measure.

Ms. Li says that writing summary is a very important skill in fiction. She is not the only one who says that. Ask any MFA student and they will tell you the same thing. Ask any Lit Professor and any real reader for that matter. It is very important, and writing good summary is harder than writing a scene. There is a correct way to write summary and then there is the dreaded info-dump. Beautifully written and engaging summary is not the same as an info-dump. Who coined that idiotic phrase anyway? Info dump? Shit, half the people I hear say that don't even know what the hell it means. But you, as a serious writer will know what it means, if you want to, and the more excellent literature you read, the more, as a serious writer, you will understand this. You can tell things to a reader and still make it engaging. I kid you not. If done well, summary contains just as much mood and movement as a scene, without actually being one. I particularly like the forty percent silence constraint Ms. Li mentions. A book heavy on scene is exhausting to read. It doesn't give the reader time to slow down and contemplate what is happening. Summary works to break up the manic moments in a story. It's a place for flashbacks and flashforwards, for fitting in a bit of backstory -- because people don't spew their life history to each other. Normal conversation is disjointed at best -- and it's also used for scene setting. Sure we can squeeze all this into the action, but then the reader is never given an opportunity to just relax in the silence and take in the moment. Not that it's anything spectacular, but I'll share an example from my latest release Logos:

Elise, the young sweet thing. “The apple of my eye,” her mother would say to her while foisting a condescending opinion at her down the length of a rigid bony finger, and Elise would ingratiate herself, if only for the moment. Rebellion just felt natural, like a prerequisite to adulthood, so being labeled a little wild child of the X-generation didn’t seem such a cliché after all. She could tolerate the finger pointing: there were no real consequences, so what did it matter?

To the outside world, even those closest to her, she was cheerful, well adjusted, and exuded a genuine love of life. “A shiny new penny” people often said of her. However, underneath that vivacious and affable exterior — the bouncy red hair, the apricot sheen of her lips, and the quiet blue of her eyes — the twenty–one year old grappled with a hopelessness utterly beyond her control. She was not of a strong mind. She was, in fact, incredibly weak when it came to the opinions of others, more importantly, their opinions and perceptions of her. Could she ever be perfect enough? Popular enough? Smart enough? Pretty enough? As if any of it mattered. But it did. What she adamantly claimed didn’t matter was actually everything she needed. There is something to be said for one’s own perception, how it can be so easily manipulated and distorted, but I was tired of walking and tired of pondering the existential conundrums of the dysfunctional. I just wanted a drink.

Now in that excerpt, I am telling the reader about Elise. It's not necessary for Elise to show herself to the audience, since she dies at the end of the vignette, anyway, and that's not what is really important to the story. How the narrator, or rather the main character Selena, perceives Elise is what is critical here, not Elise's perception of herself. It's the projection that matters to use psych terminology here. However, a summary like this doesn't have to be bland: there is action, dialog, movement, and vivid description. It's not Proust, just my own feeble attempt, but you get the point. I could have just said Elise had low self-esteem and that her insecurities were crippling. Sure, one sentence would have done it all, but it would have been rather flat, I think. That's the difference between showing and telling: with practice and attention to the craft, you show while you tell and you tell while you show. Showing has nothing to do with writing in scenes; it has only to do with mood and movement.

Cheryl Anne Gardner

The Art this week is Schonagauer's Temptation of Saint Anthony circa 1480.


Levi Montgomery said...

I really truly wish I had a dollar for every time I've said exactly that: "We call it storytelling, not storyshowing!"

Words can only tell. They cannot show. "Show, don't tell," when it comes right down to it, is only a smoky, mirrorsy, handwavy way to say "You told of different things than I would have."

Subtract the inherent insinuation that the speaker is a better writer than the person being spoken to, and what's left? A very poorly worded way to tell someone how to word their story.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Me too Levi. Probably why I harp on it all the time.

I think characters info dumping in dialog is even worse. Who talks like that? I know when my characters need to speak and what they need to say, and usually, like in real life, they say very little.

Besides, I love beautifully written exposition. Love to read it, try to write it.

Levi Montgomery said...

Some time back, there was a group project on one of the "online writers' communities" called something like "Dialogue only." Tagline: Exposition is for amateurs.

Silly me, I tried to tell them you can have exposition in dialogue ("As you know, Bob, we're here to kill this guy and take all his chili recipes..."), but they didn't believe me.

Me, I love all the bang-bang-shoot-'em-up fake military/cop movies that have the special ops/SWAT guys being briefed in the chopper/van on the way to the insertion point. Love that.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Well the tagline itself makes it quite evident that no one in that group ever picked up a college level creative writing textbook in their life, and yet, they have the audacity speak out of their ass about amateurs.

Funny. But most people are like that. They don't know what they don't know.