Friday, March 05, 2010

Talk is Cheap

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?

15 comments:

jjdebenedictis said...

I'm actually a bit allergic to first person for exactly the reasons you give--too often, there's a lot of telling.

But that POV can be done well. In Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, he made his protagonist's voice very lyrical, and so it was completely believable when she gave a vivid, beautiful description of her surroundings. She spoke like a poet all the time, so her poetic asides worked within the framework of the story.

In contrast, I just read a book where the protagonist is describing her friends' hair and clothing and relationships, and I couldn't buy it as the sort of thing that character would stop to think about. The telling jerked me out of the story because it wasn't handled deftly enough by the author.

Miss Footloose said...

I love writing in first person and it comes easy to me, but I have never had a problem with viewpoint in close third-person, which may have something to do with it.

(A trick I remember reading ages ago to see if your viewpoint in third person vp is right, is to re-write your text in first person vp and see if it sounds natural.)

I love reading first-person stories also (of course), for all the reasons you mention in your post -- if it is done right.

A character who is an outgoing, talkative, creative type is probably easier to write in first person than a "closed" and non-social type. Haven't tried that, I must admit, so don't really know.

About internal dialog, yes, it can slow down the story itself. It can also add color and interest and humor. Again, as you said, it must be done right.

I don't usually talk about my WIP unless I'm with other writers, or people ask specifically. Mostly I write in lonely isolation, poor me.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi JJ,

I actually love first person when it's done well - but I think it's deceptive for newer writers. It looks a lot easier than it is to maintain.

I'm very carefully weeding out the areas where my voice interrupts the story, and that's in 3rd person. It can be tricky to look at every word and description with an unbiased eye and really see whether it's something you'd say or something your character would say.

Hi Miss Footloose,

Thanks for the visit and the great insight. Internal dialogue can be wonderful, when well-done. I think the biggest mistake when dealing with internal dialogue is that so many writers use it to backstory dump, and it'll pull you right out of a story. First, because it's usually boring, but second because I can't believe that they'd be telling themself what they already know in such detail.

I don't usually talk about the story itself while I'm writing it, either, more indepth with my beta readers once I'm in revision. Maybe aspects or a certain character or something if it comes up in a conversation about writing. I loooove to talk writing process - a godsend of the internet age is that I get to have such an awesome writing/crit. group right here online :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Talking about my WIP is a huge help for me. When I try to explain what I'm doing, I can see the holes in my logic much better than I can if I'm just slogging along by myself. Which is one of the reason I really miss my writing group (internet and time issues have made it too difficult to meet on a dependable basis).

One of my biggest problems with first person is that I take over. I start talking for ME and not my protagonist, and that's no good. But like Miss Footloose, I love writing in first person -- I just have to use it sparingly.

My current WIP is half in first person, half in third. I found that first person all the way was too intense. My protagonist is lonely, and she obsesses about everything she's done and how she could have done it differently. That helps a little with the back-story dump problem. (Or so I hope...)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I have a huge problem with first person (not my own - I wield it VERY carefully) but I find telling to be extremely prevalent. Maybe I'm a different sort of reader, but voice isn't enough for me to carry a story. I actually much prefer a "non-voice," which you'll find in British mysteries, or a tiny bit of authoritative voice, like Neil Gaiman's. (I always feel like I'm a little kid and my dad is reading me a story when I read his stuff. Therein lies his appeal.)

In otherwords, I rarely see first person done well. Charlie Huston is probably my favorite first person writer. Of course, he's one of my fave writers too. :)

Re: internal narrative: 90% can go and the writer is still telling the story (sometimes not well, because they haven't shown well enough). I find Internal narrative to be an indulgence, and not one I'm willing to grant many writers.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mary,

I love talking writing in general, and sometimes specifics of my wip come up but I don't usually go into too much detail until I've gotten a full draft done - it throws off my writing to hear too many opinions before it's finished.

Hi SS@S,

I can forgive an awful lot for a truly great voice. But I'm on the same page with you about the 'telling' in first person. I see an awful lot of it. But, when first person is done well, I do really like it - it's just not that easy to do well, I think.

Jean Ann Williams said...

This is a very timely topic, Merry. I just completed my second novel and am now pounding out the real story. I write the first draft story I envision much faster in first person. I also know I don't do first person well. I wrote first person with my first novel and now it is in close third.

I'll rewrite my second novel in close third, and I'll just bet it will be much better. From reading the comments, I can already spot places where I tell too much.

Thank you for the topic.

jerseygirl89 said...

I always, always tell in the first draft. I think I've been blogging too much. I actually like first person, which might also explain the telling. But lately I've been enjoying the "non-voice" of British mysteries as sex scenes at Starbucks put it, so I may see if that can break me of my bad habit.

Aniket said...

Thank you for this post. Had wondered over this, for so many hours.

In most first person stories that I've liked, the author/narrator himself comes in as a part of the story to narrate the scenes where the protagonist is not involved.
But I feel this works okay in light humor stories, if the narration is good. But it severely compromises on the seriousness of the story.

I still liked reading Percy Jackson in first person. But I prefer third person anyday.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Jean Ann,

I'm glad the post and comments gave you something to think about - I love that about blogging with other writers. I can't tell you how much my own craft has grown through the writing discussions I've been able to get in on.

First person can be really engaging as long as you're strong enough in your craft and it best serves the story. Good luck with it - whichever way you choose to tell it! :-)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Jersey,

You know, I think telling in first draft is fine if it helps you get it out on the page. I've gotten to the point where I keep going back and editing and re-editing during the writing process and I don't think that's really good - it's taking me eons just to finish the first draft! So tell, write it in first, write in in shorthand, but write it. Then you can go back and edit the hell out of it, but in the first draft, I think you get to do whatever makes you comfortable.

Nice to see you, Jersey! How are the babies?

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Aniket,

You know, I prefer writing in third, but I do like reading a number of 1st person novels. It works especially well in comedy or a quick paced fun read. Then, too, I think sometimes the story is so spectacular that you wouldn't care how they chose to tell it :-)

Jean Ann Williams said...

More good thoughts on first versus third. I hadn't thought about first person might be better for a lighter humor story. Is it possible that we consider first or third by the tone of a story, serious or funny?

Come to think of it, a lot of funny/lighter stories are in first. Also, many contemporary stories for older readers are in first. Hmmm!

Jean Ann Williams said...

In all honesty, I think I write very well in first person, but I've had a few say they'd rather see the story in third. I even had a publisher say I'm not there yet with first. I so disagree with her, but I must be blind.

Is there any test to see if our story is better served in first or third?

Right now, I have a first chapter of a new novel out to my group redone in third. I'll let them tell me.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Jean Ann,

You know, I think a lot of middle grade and contemporary YA work in first because it's a good way to employ the character's voice, use terms and language kids that age are comfortable with and make the book read more like you're hearing it from a friend or contemporary than actually reading a story.

But say you were writing historical fiction with dialect - it might work better to use third person so that the dialect can be relegated to only dialogue... because trying to read too much phonetic text is draining and not enjoyable.

There are serious books in first person, too, I think first person really really lends itself to voice, though. A great, comfortable and yet unique voice does really well with first person because it keeps you engaged.

For me, the best well to tell if I'm hitting the right notes is time away from it. Serious time away from it. I can't see the flaws when I'm still working on it. Beta readers have been awesome for me, too and have pointed out things I don't think I ever would have seen on my own. But I never really GET exactly where I'm off until I've put the work away for a while and worked on something else.