Monthly Archives: July 2018
Most folks who study these sorts of things pretty much agree that the dinosaurs went extinct right after a giant meteor impact, but has anyone else noticed how impact has nearly caused the extinction of what was a perfectly serviceable if homely word?
I’m old enough to remember when impact was, for the most part, a noun, and the only things that impacted were asteroids and wisdom teeth.
It hasn’t been so long since I first noticed the word impact used in place of affect. Since I’ve made my living mostly as a newspaper copy editor (now retired, thank God), at the time I thought it was a clever way to hyper-emphasize how something, perhaps a piece of legislation, would affect the average person. In fact, I had always tried to get reporters to liven up their writing and wean them off tired fall-back hyperbolic adjectives such as the overused and usually misused massive. On that score I failed, and it continues to be a sign of lazy writing: massive fire, massive search, massive earthquake. No, kids, none of those things is massive.
Then there was the time I futilely tried to explain to a reporter why a hole could not be massive. But, I digress.
Anyway, impact took hold and spread like the flu until now it is rare to hear anyone use the word affect. Watch any weather broadcast and you’ll be told how a storm will impact your weekend. Segue to the news and you’ll be told how Trump’s trade war will impact the stock market. The word has even spawned impactful. As if we needed a new adjective.
I understand that language must evolve and new words are added every day, but I’ve always been suspicious of words that started out as nouns and somehow morphed into verbs. Don’t get me started on tasking and journaling. It smacks of cutting corners and laziness. I suppose it’s another product of social media communication, where everything is truncated or abbreviated.
Call me an old crab, if you like, but I think it affects communication, and not in a good way.
Ian Smith, ERWA Flasher Gallery Editor
Having a twice-daily commute of around fifty minutes, I’m in the habit of listening to audiobooks. I think I listen to more books than I read.
Given my other options of (a) road noise, (b) talking to myself, (c) overly-enthusiastic breakfast show presenters, or (d) politicians trying not to answer questions, audiobooks are a pleasant default choice.
Assuming the narrator works for me, of course, but that’s a different matter.
I recently listened to Audible’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, very nicely narrated by Stephen Fry, which runs for almost 72 hours. Four novels and five collections of short stories, with personal introductions by Mr Fry, a life-long Holmes enthusiast.
I’d never read any Sherlock Holmes, so I was curious to see what they were like.
All but one were written in the first person from Watson’s point of view, supposedly describing their escapades years after the events, reconstructed from memories, notes and records kept at the time. The other was written in the first person from Holme’s point of view.
Among the things which struck me was the way the stories reflect some of the changes in society over the time-span covered by the books, such as telegrams being replaced by telephones.
But most writers will know what I mean when I say that what struck me very clearly was that these stories can be described as “tell, don’t show”.
The earlier ones in particular seemed to follow this pattern:
1) someone turns up and presents them with a puzzle;
2) Holmes rushes off to solve it, leaving Watson to amuse himself;
3) Holmes returns to Baker Street and explains it all to Watson.
Although this approach results in snappy short stories, I didn’t exactly find them engaging.
Inevitably, there’s no shortage of books written (at least in part) to make money for authors telling other authors how to “show, don’t tell”. Attributed to Chekov, the idea was popularised by Percy Lubbock in his 1921 book The Craft of Fiction, which drew both criticism and praise from established writers.
I think the wikipedia entry for “Show, don’t tell” explains it rather well:
“Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. It avoids adjectives describing the author’s analysis, but instead describes the scene in such a way that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.”
Of course, Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories around a century ago, when writing styles were rather different. Although it’s a long while since I read HG Wells, I recall War of the Worlds and The Time Machine were rather heavy on the narrative story-telling and light on insights into the characters’ experiences.
I think Emma Darwin, in her thisitchofwriting blog, has captured the idea nicely:
SHOWING is for making the reader FEEL they’re in there: feel as in smell, touch, see, hear, believe the actual experience of the characters. … we persuade the reader to read the story we’re telling AS IF it really happened, even though we all know it didn’t. That means working with the immediate physical and emotional actions and experience of the characters: your rage beating in your ears, the wind whipping your cheeks, a beggar clutching at your coat.
TELLING is for covering the ground, when you need to, as a narrator … It’s supplying information: the storyteller saying “Once upon a time”, or “A volunteer army was gathered together”, … it’s a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment.
Here’s a single example:
The parties were dazzling and opulent. They spilled out of the house, into the garden and even the beach.
In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. … The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive … floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside … the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.
Now, which one works better for you as a reader? The factual one, or the more colourful and descriptive one?
No points for guessing which one F Scott Fitzgerald used to describe the parties in The Great Gatsby.
I believe Hemingway was notable for his “show don’t tell” style, but I must admit I’ve not read any of his work. One of my mild rebellious tendencies is to avoid anything people tell me I “must” do.
The style relies on the reader being able to imagine the character’s experience. If the writer can get it right, they don’t need to include all the nitty-gritty details, as the reader will readily fill in the gaps using their own imagination.
I’ve only posted one review on Amazon for a book I didn’t actually finish. It’s also the worst review I’ve posted, and the headline was:
“The title is the best thing about this story. Interesting enough story idea, poorly written.”
No, I won’t share the title here… but feel free to ask privately.
The book is nominally 327 pages, but I only managed two chapters. There was one line of dialogue in those two chapters, short and wooden. The bits I read were all tell and no show. Straight “tell”, with no effort to even describe what the characters were thinking. As far as I could tell, the blurb summarised the entire storyline, so I had a good idea of what I missed out on.
Obviously, we can mix “show and tell” in our writing in a way to help us tell our story. Sometimes an infodump or a section of narrative keeps things ticking along, keeping your reader’s attention until the next scene, incident or event. But you can always use a character to help “show” your fictional world in science fiction, fantasy, or even historical stories, by persuading the reader to see this world through the character’s senses.
In the end, it’s something you can use in your writing as much or as little as you want.
It’s your story, after all.
Even today, this approach has its critics. In 2017, Cecilia Tan argued in Uncanny Magazine that the common writing advice to “show, don’t tell” is both a cliché and an inherently colonialist idea.
Or, if you enjoy an entertaining conspiracy theory, you might like to think about the suggestion that “show, don’t tell” was propaganda funded by the CIA during the Cold War.
Like all these writing rules, “show don’t tell” has its place.
You want to tell your story as well as possible, after all.
by Ashley Lister
Last month I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. As we looked at appearance last month, I figured this month would be a suitable time to consider speech.
The basic rules to writing speech in fiction can be summed up in one word: clarity. So long as your reader understands what your character is saying, you’re doing it right. And one of the most frustrating ways of messing with clarity comes when readers give their characters regional accents.
The following examples comes from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
‘What are ye for?’ he shouted. ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’
‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ’t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
‘Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’
The first and third line of dialogue belong to the broad Yorkshire character Joseph. Those who are familiar with Wuthering Heights will probably be familiar with the intrusion of Joseph’s dialogue in this otherwise entertaining tale.
Perhaps I’m biased here. I grew up in Yorkshire and Brontë’s representation of Joseph’s accent strikes me as being a long way from what I encountered from friends and family. But, more importantly, I find this to be a distracting piece of text. Instead of concentrating on Joseph’s message, I’m trying to work out how to pronounce ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.’ This is a novel and I’m supposed to be engaged with the story and the characters. I shouldn’t be trying to work out how to say words.
Elmore Leonard in his 10 Rules of Writing says, “Use regional dialect and patois sparingly” and it’s a rule I would fully support. Dialogue is intrusive and, regardless of how much fun the author things the reader will have in decoding a phonetic transcript, the truth is most of don’t want that added nuisance.
If it’s important to your character to have some regional flavour in their speech, allow them to use the vocabulary of an area rather than the dialect. For example, in the extract above, Brontë could have written, “The maister’s down in the fold.” We’ve got that single word ‘maister’ which suggests a Yorkshire accent, but is sufficiently close to ‘master’ so we’re not puzzled by the content. And we know that Joseph isn’t going to simply utter one word in this dialect and then articulate the remainder of his speech in BBC English. To my mind, this is a more effective way of conveying regional difference without interrupting the reader’s suspension of disbelief and their immersion in the narrative.
This is not to say that no one should ever write characters with a regional accent. I’ve just come back from a writing conference where a very clever lecturer explained that no writing rule is an absolute and there will always be scope for subverting rules under some circumstances.
I agree with what he said and I believe, if you’re writing a piece and it’s essential that your character says, ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him,’ then you should follow your authorial instinct and produce the story in that distinctive fashion. However, if your beta-readers and your editor say that some parts were a little confusing, or dragged them out of the story, I don’t think it will take long to work out where the problem is.
I’ll talk more about creating characters through speech next month but for now, as always, if you want to share any of your dialogue in the comments box below, I’m always happy to read and respond.