Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Storytelling Approach, Pt. 2: Two Basic Rules

I know that I said I was going to describe my editing process this week, but as I started writing it, I realized that maybe the things I think about while writing might interest someone. The world must be build before it can be torn down, right? So, editing can wait for now.

In fact, after I ditched the editing post, my plan was write about my approached to character development. Then my writer friend in British Columbia, who's just starting a new MAJOR edit of the first book in her series, sent me her reworked first chapter. While critiquing her changes, I ended up with a completely different post for today.

There are two popular maxims floating around like spooks on the internet, haunting writers: “write what you know” and “show don’t tell.” They are logical statements, but are open to varied interpretation. After having given them a lot of thought over years, this is what that advice has come to mean for me.

Write What You Know
Spiderman wears Jason Bourne pajamas.

Let me ask you…do you think that Robert Ludlum, author of The Bourne Trilogy, was a contract assassin for the CIA during the Cold War? Do you think that he ever rampaged through Hong Kong looking for his wife or killed an adversary in a Russian spy training village?

If that all seems a little like…well, fiction…it’s because it is. Mostly. Ludlum was a US Marine, so the soldier aspect of Jason Bourne’s back story comes from first-hand service experience. But unlike his creator, Jason wasn’t a frat boy or a theater actor. (I make the distinction because the former spy was an actor; the whole world was his stage.)  They were both academics, but it’s never revealed whether Bourne's alter-ego David Webb spent his formative years in boarding schools. (I don’t believe that fits with the story.)

Jason and Marie have a moment.
So now let me ask you this…do you think that Ludlum might have ever been angry in his life? Do you think he might have ever fallen in love, felt desperate, afraid, or disillusioned? If that question seems a little silly, of course it is. The man was human, after all, complete with a heart, lungs, and nervous system.

“Writing what you know” is to incorporate your experiences into your work. Basing your lead character on the simple details of your life—ie. Japanese-American female, 37, married, mother of one who spends most of her waking day with a computer keyboard, but not writing—that’s writing autobiographically, which isn’t the same thing. We are not the sum total of our attributes. We are each much greater than that.

Recall the grief over losing your grandmother to cancer and share it with a character whose boyfriend was killed in a car accident. Remember the astonishment you felt when you unwrapped a "just because" gift and found something wonderful inside. Pass that rush to an archeology student as he sees the rock city in Petra, Jordan, for the first time. Dredge the depths of your memory to a time when you were dared to eat something really gross and give your vomiting reflex to the camper who finds a mutilated body.

Above all, remember the immortal words of Mies van der Rohe, the father of the modern skyscraper, “Less is more.”

Show, Don’t Tell

I chose to work through this advice second because it’s a problem of mine. My dear husband pointed out that I have a problem with overwriting AND telling rather than showing.  His critique has merit, and not just for the flaws in my storytelling.

How in the world could you provide tons of descriptive detail and still be telling?  Well, to answer that, you have to understand what the reader needs to be shown. (And yes, I understand it, and STILL have a problem working it through.)

Let’s start with blue. There are light blues and dark, bright and dull, pastels and neon shades. Suddenly just blue doesn’t seem all that interesting, so you feel inclined to designate the shade of blue. You pick say, cornflower…and that’s where you’ve just messed up. First of all, are your readers going to have to dig out their kids box of crayons to find cornflower? Second, does your reader care what cornflower actually looks like. So yes, you have shown the reader something specific…but does it have anything to do with your plot? If yes, by all means, carry on. If not, I invite you to join me at 7 p.m. on Wednesday for Overwriters Anonymous. There will be coffee and cookies.

I know what you’re thinking. Am I really suggesting that we never mention color…or hair color/length, height, weight, build, skin tone, etc? Well, certainly not if you’re going to do it like that! Sheesh. I don’t know about your country, but medical records are confidential in the United States. (Just kidding!) There are ways to do it and figuring out some ways as examples for this post are research for me, and hopefully good advice for you. (Got ideas or examples? Please post them in the comments.)

Leto and his spicy blues
This photograph represents eye color as a critical element of character development and plot. The character, Leto Atreides II, was not born with these eyes. Nor was his sister, whom he is seen talking to here, but she has them as well. It is shared by Fremen people of Arakis and anyone who else who has consumed sufficient quantities of a spice called mélange that comes from there. The spice is used to extend the lifespan of the elderly, and for religious ritual by the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen tribes. The drawback is that it is highly addictive and the withdrawal is lethal.

In Dune's universe, eye color is not simply a descriptor. It provides the reader very specific information about the character that has them: 1) he has a spice habit, and 2) he has undergone some sort of transformation as a result of it.

When a writer describes smoke curling off the end of a cigarette, he is showing many other things as well.  It sets the scene...the degree of circulation in a room, the ambient light, and the fact that a smoker is present, or was recently.  Given widespread smoking bans in recent years, this information may be more or less significant depending on when the story takes place.

The height of two characters can be emphasized at once by having one stand on a log to give the other a kiss. A man’s eye color can be described by having a female character notice that what she thought was blue actually has a green in it. A character’s long hair can be shown by having another character asking when he’s going to cut it. You can bring attention to a shiner around the POV’s eyes by having a friend ask him, “Dude, what happened to your face?”

As Mies van der Rohe also said, “God is in the details.”


  1. Thanks for this post - very solid advice and, I think, essential to quality writing. Translation of experience and detail - shown, not told - makes all the difference. What I find surprising, sometimes, is the number of professional and published writers who don't appear to do what you've outlined!

    Matthew Wright

  2. Write what you know. That's a pet peeve of mine. A friend uses that to write only about her own life experiences. I've tried to tell her that we all know more than that; much more.

    I like to fit descriptions into the action, such as "twirling a lock of her long, dark hair around his finger."

  3. That's the way I look at "write what you know".

    For instance, Stephenie Meyer obviously knows what teenage angst-ridden, obsessive love is like. At least, I would think she does, having read the Twilight books. I'm sure she never ran into vampires and werewolves at her high school (then again... how am I to know). But, she can put what she knows into her paranormal characters, giving them more depth and realism.

    I sometimes struggle with showing vs. telling. Though I understand the concept, sometimes it's difficult to find in your own writing.