One of the most difficult things to explain to writing students is the age-old adage, "show, don't tell."
"What do you mean?" they ask.
"What do you mean?" they ask.
How do you respond? Let's just admit at the outset that there is no easy answer to this. And I am also certain that I break this rule myself, although certainly not on purpose.
I am most aware of showing and not telling when I find myself trying to express an abstraction. Joy. Sorrow. Fear. I want readers to experience those emotions along with my characters. I don’t want to tell them about it. I want their hearts to echo with empathy and understanding of the predicament of my characters.
In All That’s Missing, I needed to establish early on that my protagonist Arlo missed his parents who had died in an accident when he was 2 years old. But, I didn’t want to say, Arlo missed his mom and dad so much. I didn’t want to explain an abstraction. I wanted my readers to feel it, to experience Arlo’s longing for something he could never have. So, what did I do?
In one early scene where Arlo is rummaging through a cabinet, he happens upon his family album. Paging through it, Arlo pauses at a photograph of his parents standing under a crabapple tree at his grandmother’s house.
I did not write, Arlo thought about how much he missed his mom and dad.
I did not write, Arlo was sad because he had never had a chance to spend time with his parents.
Instead I tried to go deep into Arlo’s head and channel his thoughts directly to my readers.
Here is what I wrote:
“If only Arlo could have known them, really known them, before they died. He studied his father’s eyebrow, the place where the hair thinned until there almost wasn’t a line. Arlo reached up and touched the same spot on his own eyebrow, where it narrowed the same way. He wanted to feel some connection. Father. Son. Family. But all that came was a single word. Gone.”
My goal was to convey Arlo’s longing for family, for a group of people to whom he belongs. It’s something visceral. It needed to resonate below the surface. Arlo yearns for connection to something stable in the world. That word family is charged with meaning for him. The only family member he knows when the story begins is his grandfather, whom he dearly loves, but who is losing his memory. What will Arlo’s world be like when his grandfather’s memories are gone?
That physical resemblance, the spot on Arlo's eyebrow which thins until there almost isn’t a line, is a connection to the father he has lost. Arlo touches it to remind himself that he is part of a larger whole, even if his mother and father are both gone. That action, I hope, helps to convey what he’s feeling at that moment.
One way to think about this is to consider how you would portray a character whose story you are writing. What physical action might you perform to reveal the emotion a character is experiencing? I think it has helped me enormously to have been active in community theater --- behind the scenes, mind you, not in front of the curtain. It has helped to heighten my awareness of the physicality of a character. Still, none of this comes naturally. It is work. But, it’s good work. And nothing is more satisfying than to feel like you have made a small discovery. Putting flesh and bones on a character involves a series of small discoveries. Over time they add up, but my goodness, how much time it requires. Patience is required. And belief. Lots of it. To all you writers out there, I wish you generous helpings of both.