“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most well-worn saw in teaching creative writing, supposedly originating with Aristophanes. It’s not bad advice, of course. The ability to dramatize action, characterization and relationships in scenes is essential to most engaging story telling. Mastery of the well-crafted scene in which the reader is able both to experience the situation at hand, and also interpret it – “read” it for meaning and understand its implications and reverberations in the story as a whole — is necessary if one is ever to be a successful writer. So why is it then, that I have come to want to kick something (or someone) whenever I hear that particular phrase trotted out?
First let’s define a few terms:
Journal – just that. A collection of dated entries that gather force by accretion of experience, always chronological. Many people, myself included, keep private journals for their own amazement and amusement. Some journals, however, are meant from the start as public works (Sue Hubble’s A Country Year, Rick Bass’ Oil Notes, May Sarton’s At Seventy). The preface of Reeve Lindbergh’s No More Words, about her experience seeing her mother succumb to Alzheimer’s, reads thus: “These pages represent a kind of journal, with chapters taken from my own diary entries, written off and on between May 1999, the time my mother came to live with us in Vermont, and February 7, 2001, when she died. I first began to keep a record of this period for myself alone, hoping to make some sense of my turbulent thoughts, feelings, and moods surrounding my mother’s presence and care…This is not, however, an exact reproduction of my diary…I found myself expanding upon the original entries as I typed them into the computer, adding a new thought here or an old memory there, as these thoughts and memories came to me.” Journal material often finds its way into memoirs.
“Voice” is a term that gets bandied about in the writing world a lot, as in “He hasn’t found his voice,” or in reviews, such as: “She has created a unique, lovely and deceptively unsophisticated voice for her narrator.” Sometimes readers will exclaim to a writer, “I love your voice!” or an editor will reject a piece because “the voice isn’t fresh or original enough.” Voice seems to be a crucial yet elusive aspect of writing. Is it simply personality in writing? Like personality or style, don’t you either have it or not? Can it be developed, or learned? What is it, really?
For starters, you’re going to be overwhelmed. We might as well get that up front. Writing–or trying to write a book-length anything–is overwhelming. I know, because I’ve written several, and it was hell. And I’ve worked with a lot of other people who have written books, and I’ve never heard a one of them say, “Hey, that was easy.” Or if I did, I fled the other way. I did hear a few of them say it was good work, and certainly many of them said it was entirely worthwhile, possibly life-saving, and deeply satisfying. In other words, worth it. But still overwhelming, especially in the beginning (also in the middle, not to mention the end…). So, okay. Now you know. You’re going to be overwhelmed. Other people have been overwhelmed and lived to tell about it.
How to Read Short Stories as a Writer
Perhaps the best and maybe only advice one can give someone trying to learn to write short stories is to read a lot of them. Eventually, if you read enough of them, you begin to get the picture. You begin to get a felt-sense for what a short story is like, what the form can do, what other people are accomplishing. But getting beyond admiration or intimidation, to see why and how good stories work, and even better, to learn from them, is not something most people have a lot of instruction in. They read as consumers, not as writers. But reading as a writer is a different deal. It’s the kind of analytical reading that can move one along in terms of developing one’s own skills and talent. I’m not talking academic reading here. You don’t need to write a term paper. But as a writer, it does help to know what to look for in stories, to see how certain common denominators are handled. Then hopefully you absorb those elements to the point where you don’t have to think about them (at least not until revision time). They’re available to you, integrated into the self out of which you write. But first you have to be aware of them.
It’s quite possible, and common, to tell a story in third person with almost no narration. The “camera” is simply centered in the head of the third-person main character, and we experience the story as if we “are” that person, experientially.
The girl Ryan Callaway was following turned off the Boulevard St. Michel, where Ryan knew every shop and office, and onto a side street that he hadn’t been on before, even though he had been wandering the city streets for weeks. She walked past a papeterie and an abandoned shoe store and an art gallery selling glossy prints of American movie posters and then led the way into a dimly lit office that once might have been used by an insurance salesman. To Ryan the room smelled like his parents’ basement back in the states, a wet and musty resting place for the broken appliances and old clothes the family couldn’t bring themselves to part with…
Opening from “Numerology” by Christian Michener
Here about the only concession to a narrator is to call Ryan by his first and last name, which he would not do himself, internally. Otherwise, we experience everything as Ryan does, in a scene. The only information we are provided is through his senses. We are thoroughly limited to his head. Later in the story, there is some background information provided, but it is done as “daydreaming” on Ryan’s part or sort of memory on Ryan’s part — events he has lived through, such as news of his parents’ separation. Many stories are told this way. They have the advantage of putting you right in the character, “suspending your disbelief,” and making you experience right along with the character. On the downside, they limit you as the writer to a plot-driven, scene by scene story. You are limited in terms of getting through a lot of background information quickly, or having some angle on the character that he or she might not have on him or herself. There’s no real narrative “voice” to this story. We are not being told a story, we’re being shown one.
Other examples of simple Third Person point of view stories:
‘Hey, Captain,’ Stuart said. He’d seen the dog as soon as he turned the corner, stretched over the doorsill of the bar in a wide amber beam of the afternoon sun. ‘Hey, babe, you still remember me?’ He hesitated, just outside the doorway, in case the big German Shepherd did not remember him after all. No doubt that Captain was a lot older now, shrunken into his bagging skin, the hair along the ridge of his back turning white. A yellow eye opened briefly on Stuart and then drowsed slowly back shut. Stuart took a long step over the dog and was inside the shadowy space of the bar.
opening of “Finding Natasha” by Madison Smartt Bell
Janet woke suddenly. She could tell, even with the blinds closed, that it was early on a cold day. Well, February was unpredictable in San Francisco. And Valentine’s Day was unpredictable anywhere. She felt a stab of self-pity about her solitary state and snuggled under the covers. No, she was wide awake. She would make the most of today because she was behind on her taxes and on her tapestry orders. Christ! The Federal Express truck was supposed to collect the last piece for the New York gallery this morning and she hadn’t even completed the address form.
opening of “Valentine’s Day” by Valerie Miner
It is also possible to have a third-person story with a limited omniscient narrator. This is very very common in third-person short stories. In fact, it is difficult to tell a story about a third-person character without a narrator. Limited omniscient means that the narrator is limited to what the third-person main character, the protagonist, can know or perceive, and also to what is within the character’s knowledge, such as background information, description, the past.
Mark flung a final shovelful of cement into the mixer and stuck the spade in a pile of sand. ‘She’ll be done soon!’ he hollered at Elmer, who was knocking the forms off a fresh burial vault. Elmer nodded and coughed. Like Mark, he wore a red bandanna across his face. The air inside the Sunwall Brothers’ Vault Company was heavy with fine gray dust. By the end of the day his lungs felt so thick that more than once as he sank into sleep Mark had imagined his lungs were hardening, slowly turning into concrete. Still, it was the best summer job he’d ever had. The day was decent, Elmer was good if quiet company, and the nearness of death made him feel serious, adult, and curiously alive.
opening of “You Ain’t Dead Yet” by Barton Sutter
Here we have the lightest of narrators: it is the narrator who tells us, for example, that Elmer is also wearing a bandanna, and that the air in the vault company is heavy with fine gray dust. Mark can and does perceive these things, but they are being told to us by a narrator, not experienced directly in the moment by Mark. We begin, in this example, to hear a voice outside the third-person character, a limited omniscient narrator who will tell us what we need to know, but in an almost invisible way, so close is the narrator to Mark’s own perceptions and knowledge. Still, it’s an important distinction, because now this narrator, established in the beginning, can give us information as needed. But again, once the initial terms are set, the narrator must pretty much adhere to such a narrow omniscience as established in the opening. For example, later in the story, the narrator gives us this bit of description:
The river was slowed here by a series of small dams and backed into marshes and mudflats to form the Deep River Wildlife Refuge. The water was low this time of the year, and the breeze blew the rank stick of the exposed bottom through the cab of the truck. Mark noticed a raft of big white birds floating far out.
Mark is there, perceiving, but it is actually the narrator who describes the river, not Mark. We hardly notice, so minimal is the narrator’s intrusion. Just the necessary information to set the scene, then disappear.
In the next example, we hear hear a third-person limited omniscient narrator who is more “assertive” in a sense than the last one. We are much more conscious of the narrator telling the story. Again, we will be centered in one character, Susan, but we are also conscious that the story is not being told/shown simply from inside her head. There is another consciousness/voice that is narrating the story. Again, this narrator is “limited omniscient,” limited to focusing on and through Susan. The narrator can give us information about her. The narrator has separated more from the main character than in the last example.
The woman, who likes to be called Susan, not Sue, looks down at her hands in her lap; and when she looks up, still listening, the man once again catches her eye. He has dark, curly hair and a mustache. His look is steady, absorbed, savoring, unabashedly sexual. She has no idea how long he has been staring.
The audience for the lecture is arranged in a horseshoe around the lectern, which places Susan and the man, though 20 feet apart, virtually face to face. If she looks straight ahead, she cannot avoid him.
Opening from “Rose” by Margaret Edwards
In the next example, there’s a very strong third-person limited omniscient narrator. This narrator gives us a lot of information — all of which Jane, the main character is privy to — but it’s separated from Jane-in-a-scene. It’s background, context, and the narrator sets the story up by giving us some initial information, rather than be “stuck” in having to show everything. Then the narrator, strongly established from the start, can continue to shape and manipulate the material, even as it becomes more and more scenic, as we focus more and more on Jane and her feelings and experience.
Jane’s husband, Martin, works for the fire department. He’s on four days, off three; on three, off four. It’s the kind of shift work that allows plenty of time for sustained recreation, and during the off times Martin likes to do a lot of socializing with his two shift mates, Wally Harmon and Teddy Lynch. The three of them are like brothers: they bicker and squabble and compete in a friendly way about everything, including their common hobby, which is the making and flying of model airplanes. …In a way, Jane is the outside here: the Harmons have known Martin most of his life, and Teddy Lynch was once point guard, to Martin’s power forward, on their high school basketball team. Jane is relatively new, having come to Illinois from Virginia only two years ago, when Martin brought her back with him from his reserves training there.
This evening, a hot September twilight, they’re sitting on lawn chairs in the dim light of the coals in Martin’s portable grill, talking about games…
The story is Jane’s story, her experience, and we will adhere to her as the main point of view character with this limited omniscient narrator throughout the story. The narrator recedes of course, as the story gets underway, but can come in to give information, background, description. Here, later in the story, we see how we get close into Jane and her inner feelings. The limited omniscient narrator doesn’t foreclose that by any means.
Two boys from high school come past, and one of them winks at Jane. She remembers how it was in high school — the games of flirtation and pursuit, of ignoring some people and noticing others. That seemed like such an unbearable time, and it’s already years ago. She watches Eveline light yet another cigarette, and feels very much older than her memory of herself. She sees the person she is now, with Margin, somewhere years away, happy, with children, and with different worries. It’s a vivid daydream. She sits there fabricating it, feeling it for what it is, and feeling too, that nothing will change: the Martin she sees in the daydream is nothing like the man she lives with. She thinks of Milly Harmon, pregnant and talking about wanting to be surprised by love.
from The Fireman’s Wife by Richard Bausch
Here’s another example where we have a strong third-person limited omniscient narrator. We know who the main character will be –the young woman (Claire) but we are watching her along with the narrator. Here, just to complicate things, the narrator is not limited to Claire completely. The narrator claims more omniscience than the previous one by describing the main character not by her name in the beginning, which would put the narrator closer to her, but from the more distanced “young woman.” Not only that, the narrator roams into the heads of the men on the plane near Claire. But the focus is still Claire; the story will be her experience and hers alone. Only gradually does the narrator move in closer to Claire and her feelings. But having claimed it, this narrator always retains a great degree of control, distance, and omnisicence in telling this story. She is not limited by any means to a “scenic treatment.” In many ways, this allows her to go deeper than mere showing (though that is effective in certain stories also). Notice how different this story opening is from the one by Valerie Miner, where there is no narrator. Remember, there are all kinds of variations and degrees of narrator involvement, omniscience, and distance between these two examples:
Suddenly, on a routine flight between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., a young woman who has been staring intently out of her window bursts into violent tears. No turbulence can have upset her — the air is clear and blue and calm — but in an instant her eyes clench shut, her hands fly up to cover her face and her shoulders convulse in spasms.
She is seated near the front of the plane and the seat next to hers has not been taken. No one is aware of this outburst but the two men across the aisle from her. Because she is good-looking, in a dark, rather stylist way, these men have been observing her since she got on the plane with them in Atlanta; they like the somewhat old-fashioned smooth way her hair is knotted, although, good old Southern boys at heart, they are not so sure about the look on her face, what they could see of it, before she began to cry: wide-eyed and serious, she hardly smiled. One of those women too smart for their own good, they think.
The second section of the story begins:
The young woman, Claire Williston, who is not on drugs, or drunk, has been deeply mortified by those tears, which came on her like a fit, a seizure. Generally she is a disciplined person; she behaves well, even under emotional stress. She does not make scenes, does not cry in public, and rarely cries alone. Maudlin, she is censoriously thinking, and How could I do this to myself. How could I take a flight that would go right over Hilton.
Vague about the specifics of geography, she had simply not realized what any map could have told her: flying from Atlanta to Washington of course you go right over Hilton, the small mid-Southern town where Claire was born and lived for the years until she went away to school up North. To which, except for one fatal summer and her father’s funeral, she has not been back for years, and where, as she sees it, she cannot ever now go back. But here she is, directly overhead.
At the end of the story, we are right “in” Claire.
However, instead of finally getting down to work on the serious article that is her assignment, in a dreamlike way Claire sits back in her chair, and she begins, rather, to recall the particularities of her trip. She remembers certain accents, heard on streets, in restaurants, in Atlanta and Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans — and gestures observed, both unique and indigenous to that region. And she sees again the colors of earth and leaves which, at certain times of the year, in a certain place, are absolutely unmistakable.
from “An Unscheduled Stop” by Alice Adams
Hopefully you have seen how we can start at one end of the spectrum of third-person stories where there is almost no narrator to a very dominant omniscient narrator — even though the story is still third person limited (but with a little true omniscience in the opening). The last story still has only one main character, and it is her story we will follow. But the narrator takes great liberty in being able to tell us a lot about the character — everything we need to know.
Begin to notice the use or lack of a narrator in stories you read.
None of this is meant to confuse you, or to influence you. No way is “best.” Point of view depends on the story you want to tell — how you “see” the material, what you want to do with it, what your idea or point is. My point is that you have choices, options, technical possibilities. Don’t be “limited” yourself by thinking there is only one way to tell a story — the “show” way of everything having to be scenic. Many beginnings writers fall into this trap. Don’t be afraid to use a narrator who can “tell” the story. Experiment with openings. Strike out boldly with a very omniscient narrator a la Alice Adams, or a more limited omniscient one a la Margaret Edwards. You’ll be surprised what a difference the use of a narrator can make sometimes.
Example of use of narrator in “Numerology”:
Ryan Calloway had been in Paris for five months when he received the news that his parents were getting a divorce. Ryan was officially registered as a student in a study-abroad program — his parents’ latest attempt to get him to actually get his degree — but as soon as he learned about his parents, he more or less dropped out and began walking around the town. He was not terribly ambitious to begin with, but it wasn’t just that. It was that he was angry at his folks, and losing himself in this particular way felt like as good a form of punishment as any.
What do I mean by “not nice” in terms of writing? Certainly it’s a value of mine to be “nice,” in person and in writing; I want people to like me, to like my writing. And certainly I don’t have as a value “not nice” for its own sake. But I do find that I’m very interested in exploring with you the notion captured in the phrase “not nice.” It seems to me an important concept to consider. I’m sometimes aware, when I read student or client writing, of a feeling I have that the writer isn’t going far enough, or has more to express — more feelings and emotions — than are getting on the page. I feel a sense of constriction, constraint, convention perhaps. Other times I don’t think along these lines, because the notion of “not nice” doesn’t apply. It’s not an issue in whatever is being written. But I’m interested in our looking at subjects or places in our own writing where some internal censor pops up — either consciously or unconsciously — and shouts “don’t go there — not nice!” and the writing suffers for it.
Humor in Writing
Just as humor is a saving grace in life itself, so can it be in writing. Granted, life is serious, writing is serious, WE are serious, but we can also be funny sometimes, if we let ourselves. There are definitely plenty of things that just are not funny and it would be insane to try to make them so. But what I’m interested in is expanding or stretching the range of your voice so that when the time is right, when something has some comic, ironic, absurd or just “light” possibilities, you’ll be ready. Also, just inviting you to practice hitting this note, so to speak, might open up some writing possibilities for you you’re overlooking. You might actually find a voice or tone you can use by consciously trying on something you don’t normally do. Opening up this aspect of your personality more in writing might allow you to write things you wouldn’t otherwise write. And that would be good.
A Few Thoughts on Critiquing or One Size Doesn’t Fit All
One of the difficulties in trying to establish some guidelines for critiquing manuscripts in a creative writing class or feedback group is the vast array of differences we see from piece to piece. One piece may be whole and nearly perfect as it is presented to us (whether from a lot of revision or because it sprang fully formed the first time) whereas another may be just struggling into existence, a virtual embryo compared to the full term birth above. Obviously we cannot approach these two manuscripts in the same way. Likewise, what a piece may need is a macro approach, where we talk about large issues such as themes or the overall structure; or it may need a micro-approach, attention to the language in the first paragraph, say, which establishes a certain voice and tone–or doesn’t. It may be a combination of these two. There is also our sense of the writer, whether she wants and need a lot of criticism or needs basically affirmation in order to proceed, or permission to engage in a lot more process as opposed to rushing a product. And of course there’s the possibility that we feel either blank in terms of our own response or overwhelmed and disorganized about how to address the issues. In other words, one size does not fit all. We have to be sensitive and adjustable regarding every piece of writing. At the same time, we need some general ideas and approaches to guide us.
Capturing Childhood/Engaging the Adult Reader
The world of childhood is terrific material for writers, both memoirists and fiction writers and everyone in-between. We all went through childhood, after all, so we can relate, and we know childhood to be intense, sensual, weighty. Does anyone buy the myth of a happy childhood anymore? Well, certainly some childhoods are happier than others, but regardless of how lucky we were in this regard, we usually can identify with children’s pain. We “get” as adults how much things can hurt, how innocent or unprotected by our adult coping skills children can be. We also can relish the freshness of experiences, the wonder of it all. We seem drawn to see the world again through the eyes of children — and often that world, in writing, is more vivid than the one we experience through our own present weary vision. Children are not “lesser” humans; they’re just at a different stage of the life experience. They have the same ability to feel things (sometimes more intensely) and to have a whole consciousness, albeit not a particularly verbal one. Therein lies the problem. We didn’t have much language as young children; it was all sensation. So the challenge for the writer of childhood stories is to capture the non-verbal felt experience of children while still appealing to the adult verbally sophisticated reader.