A writer’s spices

Show versus tell in character development

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Do you remember what it was like to look at a page in a book before you could read? Letters were mysterious and powerful squiggles. Adults had the magical ability of interpreting the squiggles into language.

Like any change, when you learn something new you also lose something. You forget what it was like to not know. Once you can find middle C on a piano or tie your shoes, it’s hard to go back.

It’s this tendency to forget what we didn’t know that can get in the way of creating. You write “Uncle Fred has a warm smile” on the page,  but your imagination imbues those words with so much more.

A visual artist works on her skill of stripping away what she thinks she is drawing so she can draw what is actually there. The writer has the same challenge. Nowhere is this clearer than when developing a character based on someone known.

How warm is that smile?

You may write, “Uncle Fred has a warm smile.” You fill that warm smile with your memory, which is a selective beast. What your audience sees is like a movie where several frames are missing.

William Stanley

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If you decide to use Uncle Fred in your story, you need to look at him again, to see his spirit, not your memory of his spirit.

The spirit is revealed through actions — doing. This is where showing versus telling will be your guide…

…how Uncle Fred sweeps into the room touching everyone as he goes, leaning in so close the yummy musk he wears brushes my nostrils. I can hear his warm smile in his voice, it makes me want to lean in for a hug. After making the rounds he swirls into a chair, flicking his jacket flaps back as he sticks out his chest, ready to perform as master of ceremonies. His eyes jump from one person to the next and when the glance touches me it’s a gentle caress. He speaks with a voice that rings deep and yet tender like a Buddhist meditation bell, so resonant and full every person in the room is calmed to silence by it.

I went a little overboard in that paragraph to demonstrate, but the point was to use all the detail types…

  • Visual detail
  • Sensual detail
  • Smell
  • Movement
  • Music
  • Rhythm

These are a writer’s spices. For special scenes, the ones where you want cinematic detail, throw them all in and see how they work. But a fine meal can be ruined by overwhelming flavours. As writer, your job is to create a balanced experience — a balanced meal.

Choosing when to show — and how much — and when to tell is one of the fine lines a writer traverses. But you know what, it’s not really up to you.

Your story will tell you when. If you listen.

Listen well.

Look. Smell. Feel. Move. Sound. Beat.

Rhythm doesn’t only come from drums.

Ruts. They’re furrows we make and keep following. It’s natural and easy to keep going in the same direction. Trouble is, it’s also boring.

I’m currently reviewing a multi-multi-multi–character screenplay that demonstrates the common rut of consistency. The writer captures the setting quite well, has created some vivid characters. At first, it’s an interesting story with some lovely touches audiences will love. But then scene after scene follows the same formula: two people come into a room sit down and talk.

This is typical of first or second drafts, when you’re just roughing out the story. The focus is on just getting the story down.

You have the story down so it feels complete. But it isn’t a piece of art yet. Any story at this point is like a wood sculpture that’s been roughed out by an axe. Sure, it has a shape, but little nuance, dimension or detail.

In finding the furrows you follow, there lies an opportunity to vary the experience for your audience.

Slow down/speed up/slow down…

If your story is fast-paced, find a place to give your readers a deep breath. If your story has a leisurely pace, find somewhere to get their heart racing.

Go through your scenes and find the patterns. What are the characters physically doing?

Now, think about of the flow of scenes from your audience’s perspective. Ask yourself: When will my audience start become comfortable with the pace? 

Just before that comfort zone, that’s where you want to change things up. Yes, just before that. That’s how you keep your audience guessing.

If you need to up the pace, rather than having characters sitting down get them walking down the street? One is walking faster than the other. The other person is running to catch up, desperately wanting something from the other.

Or, to slow down, place your character in a reflective atmosphere. They stop by a river, they lie on their bed, they sit in a church pew or a coffee shop, they look out the window and breathe.

Taking a breath is a good opportunity for self-reflection. If your story is an action thriller, your main character has probably not been thoughtful. So, here’s the place where you can show what they’re feeling and thinking. They can piece things together and have an epiphany.

You can also poke through your scenes to see where you can use physical action rather than dialogue. If Jenny and Peter are having a power struggle in their relationship, what if rather than having them talk it out, show it physically:

Every time Peter walks into the kitchen, he moves the bowl of fruit. Jenny comes in, sees the bowl of fruit, she moves it. He moves it back. She moves it back. 

The change in pace needs to feel like a natural part of the story. As with any scene, despite the change it still needs to further the plot, develop character and create a sense a place.

Having trouble? In looking for potential scenes to change, look at the dynamics of an individual scene. Ask yourself:

What is going on between the characters? What do they want from each other? Who has the most urgency? Why do they need each other? Why don’t they both just walk off in the other direction?

In answering these questions, you’re looking for their intentions. That is, what they want from each other. By examining these, you’re looking for ways to up the conflict, because that’s what makes a scene pulse.

Conflict happens when two characters want (their intentions) different things. They may want the same thing, but may see different answers.

For example, a principal and the mother of Johnny meet to discuss his recent problem behaviour. The principal thinks Johnny’s bad behaviour is because of too much sugar. His mother thinks the discipline is too severe. They both want the same thing: Johnny to behave. They disagree on how to get there. You, the writer, see this conflict clearly, the characters in the scene do not.

Or, Ted and Tina are planning to get married. But slowly, Ted is realizing their is a problem. It takes him a while to figure it out, but one day, he asks her: Do you want to be married, or do you want to be married to me?

In other words, he realizes that they have a conflict. He wants her to be the love of his life. She wants him to be her ‘husband.’ Anybody could be that husband. He just happens to be there.

I cover the idea of roles in my other blog post, Creating Conflict: Roles and Relationships.

One point: There are no such things as negative intentions. If two characters are in a scene together, they both want something from each other.

Negative intention examples:

  • I want him to crawl up and die
  • I want him to go away
  • I want her to leave me alone

If Fred just wants Tina to go away, why doesn’t he just leave? Walk out the door? Hang up the phone? Something has to be keeping him there. It’s your job as a writer to find out what that reason is and adjust that desire until it makes the scene sing.

Write well…

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