Monday, May 26, 2008

When, Then, Again

Let's say you've toiled on your writing, and finally you've conquered showing versus telling.

You've learned to describe objectively observable actions. You've stopped narrating and forcing your interpretations rather than let the reader make his or her own discoveries.

Congratulations! Showing versus telling is hard to nail down.

But check out this passage. It's got lots of action. However, there are a couple of subtle telling ghosts haunting it.

Cedric ducked.

The swinging sword sparked on the stone over his head. Metal sang like a battle cry.

He pounded his shield in the soldier's body. Threw him back.

When the man's foot missed the top stair, he clattered down, sword sailing and feet pitching skyward.

Then, the enemy line charged. He turned to the archers behind him.

"Retreat!" he screamed.

A black arrow pierced his shoulder and pinned him to the wall.

"Retreat!" he screamed again.

When. Then. Again. Little telling sprites that can still infiltrate my writing. What's the problem, you ask? Let's look at their usage above.

1. "When the man's foot missed the top stair...."

By using when, I'm communicating cause and effect and a sequence in time. The verb missed influences the verb clattered. But do we need it? The order of words already infers cause and effect. In the rewrite, after cutting when, I'd probably even try to split the sentence up: "The man's foot missed the top stair. He clattered down. Sword sailing, feet pitching skyward." The pause created by breaks is almost like that hanging breath just before the fall. Also, shorter sentences convey speed, and this is a fast scene.

2. "Then, the enemy line charged...."

Here, we have a similar communication, except here the prior action itself (clattered) is not contained in the sentence. Then simply reinforces the sequence. Again, not necessary. In fact, little insertions like this often feel like encroachments by the writer. Unless you're writing in first person, you don't want to remind the reader that you're there. No one likes someone talking to them during a movie, after all.

3. "...he screamed again."

Hmmm. So he's doing it again. Pretty obvious when you think about it. He already said it twice. Probably don't need to clobber the reader over the head. They get it. Really.

All this being said, I don't believe in "rules," so I'm not claiming that using when, then, or again means you flunk. It's just something to think about. There truly are characteristics which make writing strong, and other characteristics which make it weak. Weak writing removes the reader from the action, bogs down the experience, and forces the reader to work for the story. When, then, and again are often this sort of baggage. They're subtle. Often passable. But perhaps by rethinking their usage here and there, you'll be able to sharpen your writing that much more.


JaneyV said...

Thanks Jason - this was very informative. I often go back over what I've written removing these words and shortening sentences - they make the sound of sentences 'samey", repetitive. I've done it as an instinctive measure, but you're explanation has clarified why it's necessary, for me. Brilliant!

SzélsőFa said...

Is this a first part of some series on suggestions about writing more effectively? Does it mean that you are on the phase of re-shaping and revising your WIP?

Either way, congratulations for the useful post :)

Geraldine said...

Thanks for sharing this Jason. You have brought up some very valuable points. Sometimes the 'tweaking' of a written work can make all the difference. I find at times the polishing and editing to be the most enjoyable part of writing.

Sometimes less is more. Sometimes the perfect word seems elusive but can be found, eventually.

Sarah Hina said...

All good points, Jason, and well expounded on. Those silly sprites have a habit of making us lazy.

In fact, one could probably just drop the dialogue tag completely at the end, so as to avoid the repetition.

Ello said...

These are very helpful to me because I suffer from the when, then again problem. I will definitey keep this in mind! Thanks!

Ello said...

Jason, did you get a comment from me already about my guest author coming on Wednesday? The book is the Lolita Effect and the author, Dr. Durham will pop by all day and night to answer questions. I'm pretty sure I left a comment for you but can't find it, sigh. I wanted to make sure you and Aine popped by as this is an extremely important issue that is really close to my heart!


Anonymous said...

Janey, the repetitive sound of the sentences...that's a great point! These constructs do have that effect.

Szelsofa, once in a while I like to do a post on some technical aspect of writing. Other blogs focus on writing topics much better than I do, so I tend to do them infrequently. I'm making some progress on WIP, though. Thanks for asking!

Sarah, great point about removing the dialog attributes! I try to leave as many out as possible, then almost always use "said" just to identify the speaker. Strong verbs as a dialog tags do tend to distract from the dialog.

Ello, I didn't get the comment. Thanks for mentioning it again!! I will definitely stop by on Wednesday to participate. :)

DBA Lehane said...

Hmmm...perhaps show us not tell us?

Anonymous said...

DBA Lehane, by giving you an actual passage and discussing it, I believe that's what I did.

bekbek said...

I don't think I've ever seen this explained so well before, Jason. I think everybody knows the "show, don't tell" mantra, but I don't think we always know precisely what it's supposed to mean! Bravo. Not rules, no; techniques.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Ooh, good analysis. This is going to make me much more paranoid about every paragraph, though!

The Anti-Wife said...

Interesting and informative. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Bekbek, great to see you! And thanks for the kinds words. Showing versus telling is one of those writing issues that really takes an entire process of examples to explain. I'm glad if I captured a small piece of it.

Electric Orchid Hunter, a little paranoia never hurt anyone. ;) I think.

Anti-Wife, thanks, my friend.

Scott said...

That was an interesting bit of introspection. I agree with your points, though I had trouble picking them out on my first read, which of course intrigued me.

Bridget Jones said...

Thanks Jason, that was terrific!!!!

Anonymous said...

Scott, I'm sure that was due to my attempt at an explanation. The topic probably deserved more time on my part.

Bridget Jones, glad you found it helpful!

Vesper said...

Good observations, Jason. Something to keep in mind when writing. Hopefully with enough practice it'll become second nature.

I liked your tribute to Aine and your 16 years of marriage. Congratulations!