Sunday, August 12, 2012

Make it happen IN the scene

A student had a good example of an opportunity to show-not-tell.
Hero was going to argue with heroine, trying to convince her to take a certain action (break off their betrothal).
Heroine was going to almost be convinced, but then have to change her mind to ease her dying father's mind.
Now the "almost be convinced" could happen in her mind. She could think, hmm. I don't want to marry this man. He doesn't love me. I don't love him.
But if it happens only in her mind-- if she thinks it and we know this because we're in her POV and privy to her thoughts, we do know it... but it has no effect on the scene (or the rest of the book). It has an effect only when it's shown in the scene-- when she says it aloud, or pulls off the engagement ring, or rips up the contract, or... 
When it's done, however, out in the scene (by her saying it out loud), it can't be taken back. She can change her mind, but her proclamation will still have consequences, on the way the relationship develops, on how he feels about her, on how she thinks of herself.
The WAY she'd say it is important. For example, if she would say in a small voice, "You're right. I'd be a terrible wife," then later she might castigate herself for being such a weakling. And he's set up with the task to prove to her that in fact, she would be a GOOD wife and he'd be lucky to have her.
If she said, "I'd sooner die than marry you!" then-- well, she doesn't have to die, but at some point she's probably going to have to do something dramatic to avoid marrying him OR to show that (in the end) she really would rather marry him than die.
If she said, "I owe it to myself not to marry someone I don't love," (and of course she's going to marry him in the end) then she's going to have to fall in love with him and accept that she does love him, OR marry him for other reasons and be angry at herself for violating what she said.
Point is, though, if she never proclaims it outright in any form, she can change her mind without penalty or conflict. The original decision not to marry him will have no real consequences on the relationship unless he knows about it.

Make It So

 So some opportunities to "make it happen IN the scene":
Dialogue. Make them say it, argue it. Have the tension drive them to say intemperate things, make risky vows, whatever. What's said out loud can't be taken back. It can be apologized for, it can be expiated, it can be changed-- and all that requires ACTION. Good. :)
Setting. Make use of the setting to -show- something happening inside a character.  Let's say he's the strong silent type that represses his anger and doesn't speak it out. Well, he can use up the repressed energy by cutting down a tree, or building a treehouse. You're the one who decides whether the repressed anger leads him to destroy something or build something.... but anyway, it takes place in the external setting. In fact, interaction with the setting is going to "tell" a lot more than he's able to think/feel internally.
For example, I had a very controlled character who had finally worked up to asking something from the half-brother who acknowledged him as a friend but not a brother (illegitimacy, see). During this time they're discussing this, they are on a newly built pier, and Michael works off his nervousness (and irritates his brother) by "fixing" all the problems the carpenter had left (nails need to be hammered fully in, etc). That is, he was fixing mistakes left by someone else. This got him into interaction with the setting, but also echoed that long after their father's death, Michael was still trying to fix the problems Dad left.
Objects. What objects can you put in the scene which can be used to "show" what's going on? Objects really do have symbolic significance, and you don't have to get too obvious about it-- the reader will see the character doing something with that object and figure out what it means emotionally and practically in the scene.
Like in my scene above, John refuses what is asked, and Michael stays pretty cool, but he takes off their father's signet ring (which he has) and throws it into the ocean. Afterward, he says, "That hurt," but then walked away (meaning that the brother has to take the next step to reunite them). The object is a symbol, of course, of their bond and the father who abandoned them both.
Actions. Obviously all the above require character action (which is why they're especially useful!). Have the character -act out- instead of just sittin' and thinkin' or stewing silently. This can be a useful action that furthers his/her goal, like if he wants to give his daughter a birthday present (goal), building the treehouse helps achieve that. Or it could be a relatively useless action that doesn't seem to have much effect, but shows her emotion at that moment. For example, if she's feeling really agitated, she could calm herself by programming her cell phone as she should have done when she bought it.  Or she could count the change at the bottom of her purse. Whatever-- the action will show the emotion.
Anyway, always challenge yourself to make it (whatever IT is) happen in the scene. Remember Alicia's Maxim:
Popular fiction is the art of making the internal manifest on the external plane.
Emotion becomes action.
Thought becomes dialogue.
Conflict becomes scene.
Remember what Kate Moore said a scene was: We are somewhere. Doing something.
Example from a famous Dickens story:
MARLEY was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt
whatever about that. The register of his burial was
signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker,
and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and
Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he
chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a
Notice that there is an action there that SHOWS that Marley is dead, and also forces Scrooge into doing something-- he has to sign the register. Little tiny action, but see how it sets up something essential about Scrooge, his credibility. (There's a whole lot else set up in that paragraph-- it's a marvel of setting up-- but most important, by Scrooge committing this action, it sets up something about him and his identity: A man who is good for his word.)
Anyone have an example of a static passage in the scene that could use a jolt of the concrete/real/active?


Melissa Borg said...

Great article about the importance of making the character express something anything to mirror their inner life. Thanks for the great reminder.

green_knight said...

That's a really good summary - both bringing the action into the open - allowing the reader to connect the dots rather than spelling it out for him.

And I like your second point, too (that one took even longer to sink in for me): by describing an action ('Scrooge signed') the scene is grounded and hapepens in the moment rather than coming across as an endless stream of exposition: the reader isn't suspended while the narrator talks/thinks about what happened, the reader is _right there_.

Anonymous said...

I love this advice, thanks!