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Friday, June 12, 2009

How to Show by Using Voice

In the course of a discussion on Show Don't Tell on our loop, we've asked FF&P member, Jeanie Ryan to share her take on the subject.

For some, showing comes naturally. The rest of us have to work at it. I take a different approach. By concentrating on crafting the characters’ voices, I end up showing not only the scene, but the character.

Every word is an opportunity to reveal something about the character. This applies to more than dialogue and action. The character is the narrator and every word is a reflection on her. It’s a word she chooses and those choices make up her voice.

Here’s an example from my current work in progress.

The original first sentence:

“With trembling hands, Janie carefully slid the fireproof box out from under her bed.”

This doesn’t reveal much about the character.

The rewrite:

“With hands trembling, Janie eased the fireproof box out from beneath her bed. The red surface seemed to glow, giving it life in a room shrouded in early morning’s darkness. She stared at the closed box, her distorted reflection making accusations she couldn’t bring herself to voice. She closed her eyes, trying to blot out the memories, but that’s what today was about, remembering. Janie’s cheeks grew damp. Great. She hadn’t even started and already she was crying. Nine years had passed and it never got any easier.”

This paragraph sets up the heroine’s voice. She’s interested in light and how things look. Emotions are the core of her character, so much of her narration is spent on them. By doing this, she ends up showing them. Her word choice has a certain flow and gives her worldview. I didn’t think about showing, just how do I reveal her voice. I did all those things showing does without even worrying about it.

The hero is focused on thought and doesn’t just sense things, he interprets them. He does a lot of musing. This musing ends up showing the scene, because he has to say what he’s musing about.

Many of us fill out questionnaires and interview our characters. That gives us a sense of them as people, but what about as storytellers? What does your character notice first? What does she notice about it? In answering those two simple questions, you have shown something about the scene and the character. What does he think about what he sees? What does she feel? Simple questions that lead to more showing. Is he straight forward or does he think in metaphors? Is she an optimist? The word choices you make to reveal these will show the scene, as well as the character. They are also how you craft the character’s voice.

Usually I have to get the story down with lots of telling and go back. As my husband says “this is a good outline. Now you have to write the story.” Often four pages becomes thirteen.

When you’ve revealed the character through their voice, your crit partners won’t tell you “show don’t tell.” They’ll remark how emotional and vivid your writing is.


Liz Pelletier said...

Great blog, Jeanie. I loved your brief post in the loop and am glad you offered to share more here. So many authors struggle with SDT, myself included, that it's really interesting to hear how others approach this craft element. Thanks!

Unknown said...

This is actually very interesting. My MS is in first PoV, so sometimes I really do have to go back and remove a lot of the tells. ("I was doing x, or I went here"). I think I do it a lot like you, in that I wrote up the manuscript and now I'm editing it and finding all those little pockets of telling (where I was just getting the bones of the scene down), and fleshing them out with some showing. :D

Thanks for your post!