March 12, 2007

Show and (don't) Tell

I have an almost sick fascination with the editing process, especially when it pertains to my own work. Those drafts that sculpt and fling away the excess, wet clay of adverbs, gerunds, run-ons, push me to find better words, stronger images. The analogies for this process list ad nauseum: peeling away the layers of an onion, chipping away ore to find gold, sifting through your own shit to find your lost loonie... okay, I made that last one up. It all refers to refinement, an artistic butchery that requires thick-skin, objectivity, detachment --all the things that no writer really has, even those that say they do.

Now, I've heard the rumours about Alistair MacLeod (I talk about him too much, I know), how he agonizes over every word of every sentence, builds his story from the ground up with such precision that later drafts are minimal. How many of us can do that? It takes more than ability. It takes... something undefinable that I do not have. But I can learn to filter while I write, encouraging a stronger first draft, even if it is not to the the same degree as the masterful Mr. MacLeod's.

I cringe when I go back and re-read my initial work, then mutter curses under my breath at my lousy habits. Paragraph after paragraph of me telling the reader about a character or scene. It is all crap unless I can show who the character is, reveal her subtleties through a gesture, a physical response to her environment. It is much easier to fire off a quick description than to try and piece together something complicated, and Lord knows I'm prone to taking the easy way out all too often.

Compare the two following sentences:

1) Judith was raw as she listened to Ben putting her down in front of the other girls. She felt embarrassed, humiliated, but oddly enough desperate for Ben's affection.

2) Judith grinds the heel of her left shoe on a piece of brown glass scattered on the sidewalk. Her cheeks feel hot and she knows her nose is flaring, something she cannot control. And yet she still smiles at Ben, absorbing everything he says to her with his cute, crooked grin and harsh eyes, as though she is oblivious to his words and the leers of the girls standing with him.

Not perfect examples, I know. But to me, the second sentence is superior to the first. Judith's actions reveal something human to the reader, something complex about her personality. The first sentence did nothing more than give an account of her emotions.
When you read a great story, what compels you to keep turning the page? Or, what often has you skimming over paragraphs when the story is weak? I'm willing to bet it is the balance of description and action. Too much description and the mind wanders ahead, desperate for movement in the story. Of course, if there is too little description the reader loses interest for other reasons, perhaps a lack of identifiability with the surroundings.

Where am I going with all this? There are mechanical elements in good writing that provide texture to a story. I think as my writing evolves, I'm beginning to implement some of these skills in the early stages, instead of waiting for them to be pointed out later on. I'm learning to identify techniques in someone else's work that compel me and adapt those skills into my own method. Of course I have miles and miles to go.
After all, there are a million great stories out there, but not nearly as many capable hands and minds to tell them.

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