Possibly my least favorite blog posts to read are the ones that go like text messages. When a writer tells me a story through narration, rather than showing me with action and dialogue, I bore quickly. I see some good writers fall back on these techniques, especially when crafting a memoir. (Though plenty of fiction writers engage in ‘telling’ as well.) Yet, the mantra “show, don’t tell” can seem meaningless. I mean, I’m writing the story. Of course I’m telling it. In fact, the word ‘show’ is deceptive. Short of a picture book, writers do tell everything. The word ‘show’ is shorthand for ‘write using active verbs, action, and dialogue’ rather than by using passive verbs and limited dialogue.
And the most effective way I have found to achieve a narrative with active voice and dialogue is to think of my story, whether fiction or nonfiction, in scenes. The important elements of any scene are characters, action, and dialogue. Setting is also significant. Scenes typically begin with the entry of major characters and end with major characters’ exits or with a major revelation of some kind. Fiction writers have it easy in that we can make up the characters, choose the entry points, and determine what to reveal. But memoirists are not without materials. Nonfiction simply requires an adherence to actual people, actions, and words. These people are characters in the stories, and the writer him or herself is often a character in the biographical narrative. The key to making actions and words compelling lies in one of show business’s staples: timing.
USE THE W-H QUESTIONS: STEP ONE
Who, where, when
These are the three points that can be used to turn a narrative into a scene. By carefully revealing the characters, time, and place, the author can control the reader’s response to the story.
Ask yourself who the major characters are in your story. Can any be eliminated? In creative nonfiction, it’s OK to drop Aunt Nettie’s random wander through the kitchen in the middle of the heated debate unless she adds something like humor or tension to the situation. (Come to think of it, in the right narrative, Nettie’s arrival and departure could be a hilarious tool.) Or you can make Cousin Rodrigo and Cousin Andrew one person if they might as well be in real life.
Is the setting important? How important? Can you cover it in a word or two, “We sat in the kitchen”, or does it need more detail? ”Sunset slanted into the kitchen, pitching Sean’s face half into shadow, denying me a full view of his eyes.” The first example would serve a story where the main characters words could be exchanged in any locale when the writer needed a locale to avoid white room syndrome. The second example would be appropriate to a story where the kitchen mattered in some way. (“Here we sat talking of the end, of divorce, in the room where we began every morning.”)
Beyond the story’s internal “when”, there’s also an external “when” that you, the writer must impose. When is the beginning? When is the middle, when is the end? Answering those questions doesn’t limit you to writing stereotypes, either. You can know the beginning, middle, and end and still have a scene that cuts off in the middle of the action, if that’s what is necessary for the story. In fact, I often do that. Frequently, my ‘when’ is a conclusion where a character comes to a realization and, having developed the understanding, doesn’t need to experience anything else, even if the real world keeps right on buzzing.
Is it necessary to reveal a time? How can you do that without hitting the reader over the head with the information? Typically, both time and place can be given another role, so that they don’t just scream into being. “It was six PM.” would add a whole sentence to a statement that really only needs one word, “sunset”. By having a character interact with the setting or respond to the time in some way, a skillful writer can slide these elements into place so the reader knows them without being drawn out of the narrative to learn them.
USE THE W-H QUESTIONS STEP TWO:
This is important. What is being revealed. What’s the point. Is this a story that builds to a point? Or is it a story that begins with the point and then shows people’s reactions. Also, what is extra. What don’t you need. Especially in memoir, it’s easy to leave out key details because you can’t remember precisely how they played out, or to add frivolous material that happened but didn’t contribute to the story being crafted. For example, I’ve got a character running around with a bag on her hip right now. She takes things out, and she puts things back in. A lot. And I have to draw a thin line between telling and showing. How many times can she possibly “reach into the bag”? And how many times does she need to? What can I ditch? When can I say, “She got out” and when must I say, “She struggled with the slippery straps”? The answer is that I need to mention the bag as rarely as possible. My props shouldn’t be interfering with the action. Neither should the details that don’t contribute to the overall effect. This isn’t a children’s show where the backpack is a character and the objects she retrieves are much more important.
USE THE W-H QUESTIONS STEP THREE:
These are editing questions, really. Once you have crafted your narrative, go back over it with a critical eye. Ask things like, “Why did I include this character or event?” and “How can I be more concise?” or “How can I incorporate more detail without getting more lengthy?” And most importantly, “Why would a reader care?” I’m not suggesting that you shred and criticize your own work, rather that you analyze it honestly. You know the reader should care, right? You wouldn’t have written it otherwise. But if you can’t understand that reason from details within the piece, then something is still missing. Think again about the beginning, middle, and end. Why does the piece begin here? How would it look if it began somewhere else? Or at a different point in the action? (And remember that you should start as close to the action as possible. Narrative foregrounding was great in Dickens’ day but doesn’t fly well with most modern editors.)
A final “how” is, “How would this look onstage”? Even if your piece will never be re-crafted as a play, you can benefit by asking this question. If there’s a point where a visual audience would be completely confused or bored, it’s a good bet your potential reader will feel the same way. Imagine all of your dialogue being run as lines. How would it sound? Think about a stage setting. What pieces would be visible onstage? Which would the characters actually take note of? Which do you want your reader to be aware of?
Finally, close your eyes and run the piece through your mind as if it were on that stage. Even in a memoir, you will gain insight if you do this. Granted, not every piece can be imagined onstage. But a surprising number can, and you can still imagine it in scenes to figure out where to break the action.
Readers are fickle folk. The things that appeal to one will turn another one off completely. But if you can bring your writing to that level where enjoyment is subjective, than you can consider yourself accomplished indeed.