Most of the time, telling someone what you’re going to do doesn’t go over so well.
“I’m going to write the great American novel.”
If they’re polite, they’ll murmur words of encouragement. If you watch really close, they’re trying not to laugh in your face. This is mostly your fault. You’ve dumped this lofty goal on their head with nothing to back it up.
Of course, creative people know that non-creative people don’t always understand our goals. They use words like pipe-dream and delusions of grandeur. Most people stop being so cynical your creative ambitions once you’ve reached this level or that level, though not always. Creative people aren’t the only people these rules apply to, though, they apply to everyone.
The guy who talks endlessly about gardening, telling you where each vegetable and flower should be planted, but he doesn’t have a garden. The guy who can tell you brick by brick how he’s going to build a fabulous new addition, but five years later there’s not a lick of work done... he’s still talking about it, though.
With big dreams and goals, it does help to plan out how you’re going to get there. It does help to have people to bounce your progress off of and who support you. But it’s a fine line – are you talking about it, or are you working toward it? If the act of discussing it diminishes the drive to do it in any way, go out and buy some duct tape and apply it to your mouth. You’ll thank me later.
Talk is cheap in life – telling someone what you’re going to do has little impact. Showing them what you’ve done speaks volumes. The same rule applies to fiction. This, of course, directly correlates to the oft-repeated Show, Don’t Tell thing. But I’m finding that, show, don’t tell, is more nuanced than I realized at first.
I’ll use first person as an example. First person can be comfortable and awesome to read. You sink into it and it almost feels like this great friend is leading you through the story, when the author is very capable. And because it’s comfortable and easy to read, it looks a lot easier to write than it is. There are limitations with first person that can be hard to get around and I notice that some authors take short cuts to get over this. They tell.
You’re in the main character’s head already, so instead of writing out scenes of importance, the character tells you what happened. Or worse, they tell you what they feel, and if the character has a good enough voice, it can keep the reader in it for a while, but it diminishes the impact of the story. It’s just not believable. Most people don’t talk to themselves in such detail that another person (if they could listen in to your head) would know what the hell you’re talking about). So using internal thoughts to drop backstory, or give foreshadowing, or tell us what the character’s real motives, etc. etc... it doesn’t ring true. First of all, we don’t explain what we already know to ourselves. Second, and probably more important, most people aren’t that honest with themselves – we don’t always understand our own real motives. When we do understand our own motives, we don’t always admit to them.
But from the story standpoint, the most important thing is the effect this has on the reader. Showing them the reactions, scenes, little hints of what your character is about is how your reader engages in your story. If you tell them everything, they don’t get the fun of figuring it out, of playing along, of getting to know your character. Whether intentional or not, it reads as a lack of confidence in your readers’ ability to understand the story. And there’s nothing quite worse than getting the feeling the author thinks you’re stupid.
I haven’t yet mastered first person writing – not sure if it’s just not my speed as a writer or if I just haven’t worked on a story it’s a good fit for yet. I tend to be more comfortable with close third person, but the same foibles apply here. If you go on long winding internal dialogue in close third, it’ll take the same things away from the story.
How about you? Do you notice some of these ‘tells’ in your favorite books or in your own work? And do you find talking about your work in progress is a good way to work out the kinks or does it just diminish your urge to write it?