This is going off of this last post that I made Tips for Fiction Writing (Part One of Many Probably) – Starting Your Novel.
Now, I know you’re thinking, “But Love Doctor, you haven’t told us shit!”
That’s why this is multi-part. This post is going to address some of the actual writing aspects of your novel, which is not to say that I’m going to tell you that this is the only way of doing things because it sure as fuck isn’t. This post is mostly about the bullshit argument about “showing vs. telling” since that’s the Big Hot Topic since the 50s and been misinterpreted by literally every since creative writing professor I’ve ever talked to.
I talked a lot about opening dos and don’ts in the last post, but I’m going to talk a bit about something super applicable to all forms here – the problem with exposition walls. You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re in the middle of a book that’s pretty reasonable, and then, it happens. You end up reading four pages about a wedding cake you care nothing about because it doesn’t even really have any symbolic value. You’re just stuck in four pages of cake hell, and all it’s really doing is making you hungry and pissed off. So you skip a few pages of it to get past it, and suddenly you’re balls deep into a fight scene? How did this happen??? You know what happened.
When expository walls of text are heavily peppered throughout a book, you tend to skim them over and miss vital information that contributes to character development or plot. That’s why when you write fiction, specifically, you sprinkle tidbits throughout everything – dialogue, descriptions, flashbacks, prologues, etc. My problem, personally, is that I tend to under-describe things in an effort to avoid this problem, which leads to me doing four drafts of the first chapter until I have enough description to lead the reader into my world (particularly if it’s a fantasy world that has different rules).
When you over-describe or, like me, under-describe in an effort to shield your audience from a faux pas, your audience still gets lost in translation.
Okay, so how do I strike that good, good balance?
Showing vs. Telling has been a Big Thing since oration was shifting from the main form of storytelling to written forms and even before (because of fucking Aristotle). In the era of New Formalism, however, it took off again. I’m essentially going to explain why it’s bullshit here.
Traditionalism and Formalism are two literary criticisms that I might get into another time, but what they essentially mean is that
- Traditionalism takes into account the author’s background and external circumstances like time period, personal circumstances, and other prominent authors, not to be confused with Traditionalists, who are purists of knowledge and spiritual enlightenment through pursuit of the truth
- Formalism only focuses on the work itself and not the merits or external factors of the author/author’s life, which was essentially beginning to be phased out in the 70s, but everyone who went to college that taught the current waves of professors essentially preached formalism, which is why is still holds on to relevance.
Why is that important? It gave another foothold for the ideology that you shouldn’t tell your audience shit, and that you should, instead, just show them as much as possible without exposing any of your character’s internal thoughts or emotions. It’s the kind of thing that would say that the Bible is godmodding every time it tries to say something about anyone, and as Wayne C. Booth of would say,
With one stroke the unknown author has given us a kind of information never obtained about real people, even about our most intimate friends. Yet it is information that we must accept without question if we are to grasp the story that is to follow (3).
Booth continues to shit on the whole of oral storytelling, which is… thoughtless, to say in the least. Oral storytelling has passed down tradition and tale for as long as we’ve been able to communicate, and casting it to the side throws away the vast majority of any progress that we’ve made as communicators – to disregard a history is to mistake the current intent.
Booth recommends taking oneself completely out of the literature – removing all addresses to the audience (breaking the fourth wall and other methods by letting the reader in on knowledge you otherwise couldn’t have) and, APPARENTLY, any humor at all ever.
But… The question is not “What’s the right balance between showing and telling?” but rather “How can I get across what characters are going through?” and “How can I get readers to go on their own emotional journeys?”
Maass wastes no time getting to the heart of this matter by addressing the magical world of SUBTEXT.
More specifically, Maass talks about the beauty of the Inner and Outer worlds, switching the phrase Telling and Showing so that people can more readily understand what they actually fucking mean.
Outer exposure lets readers formulate their own thoughts and feelings and reactions without you having to tell them what they’re feeling, which takes away from some of that horrible, horrible potential for exposition walls as well as phrases like “Angela smiled sadly.”
Another tip for this is to act out more than you feel is necessary – fidgeting, shifty eyes, plopping down on the couch with a sigh and rubbing swollen feet before groaning in the realization of having to get back up and go make dinner. That kind of thing. Don’t “kya~!” your way through your writing though. That’s just fucking offputting.
Explore how you character experiences things rather than how they should feel about a scenario! Explore how your character experiences these scenarios rather than what just happens to them! Not how they should feel but how they do feel.
Sometimes we’re excited about something that should make us terrified. Sometimes we’re anguished about something that should make us happy. Humans are weird creatures. Explore those weird emotions.
Lastly, I’m going to address some of that Inner showing (telling).
You can absolutely break every rule that you want because there are flexible rules to literature and literary criticism, so don’t be fooled. It’s going to be okay if you do some of this without rhyme or reason other than you feel like it or you’re tired.
Inner showing almost always needs a justification – a character’s own introspection, a question that sends a character into a spiral, something that begins the snowball effect of other emotions that lead to significant outcomes. Detail of emotions – the why’s behind them and their intricacies – make the most out of a situation. It’s a puzzle of emotions that drive every human being, so how do those pieces fit together? More importantly, how do they not fit together?
Inner showing is just another way of outlining what drives your character overall. That’s called a higher emotion! Higher emotions oftentimes are the absolute force behind why your character does what they do and also how they do what they do.
These modes – Inner and Outer, now that I’ve torn away the garbage that is showing and telling – are going to contribute greatly to how you write as well as how you treat your characters. Next, though, is how Subtext will rule your ass.