Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ways to Show: Association and Atmosphere

 “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”—Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Showing is a difficult technique because what is often most important to you as the writer, that which you want understood about a moment or a character, is left unsaid. You leave it up to your readers to put the pieces together. Done successfully, this pulls them into the story because whatever they do put together is theirs, it belongs to them. Unfortunately this can feel a bit like jumping out of a plane with a chute you made yourself, often the night before, in the dark, but know it's worth it.

Also know showing may be a bit too broad to call it a technique. It's more of a method or an approach. There are a lot of ways to show. Characters pulling faces at one another is probably the most fundamental, but it only conveys so much. Sometimes you may want to evoke something more nuanced than a frown, or write something a bit more fun—and what if you're writing a somber character who already frowns all the time? What then?

It's not always how your character looks, but what they're looking at that can offer a reader insight. 

When you write, you focus the reader's attention. There is an implicit agreement between you and the reader that you won't waste their time, which means the things you're writing about are understood to be important. You don't write optional chapters. So when a character is sitting in a bar after a break up, for instance, what they focus on can reflect what's going on internally. It's a great way to fill out a scene. Maybe they see another poor shlub sitting at the end of the bar, or a couple talking together affectionately. Maybe you go for something more subtle: the stool they're in wobbles because the legs are uneven, so they can't get comfortable, or a waitress carrying an overloaded tray of dirty dishes trips over a chair and all the dishes come smashing down. We're talking about metaphors here.

Experiencing details through a character suggests an association with that character, but because it's the reader's attention that really matters, it isn't necessary for the juxtaposition to work. Proximity will also do the trick because atmosphere contextualizes story elements, and I don't mean bad weather. When you stack up enough concurrent actions and images, the effect becomes undeniable, especially if the reader knows what the character has been through. In both cases, whether through direct association or the context of atmosphere, you're inviting your reader to feel a certain way, thereby allowing them to connect with your character. The trick is to be patient.  Also, try not to be too heavy handed. I struggle with that myself.

Try it.

1 comment:

  1. Tom - - Easier said than "showed"? Anyone who says they don't struggle with these things lies . . . either to others or themselves, or both.