It's an edict: good writers don't tell; they show. It's probably what your English teachers told you. "Now, now, generic writing pupil. Good writers don't just tell you. They show. Illustrate it with language. Use examples."
It's been my conundrum this past week: how do I show that Meg, the character in my novel, is unsure about her relationship with her boyfriend and that one of the reasons she stays with him is out of gratitude? There, that was easy enough to write out, but, "Uh-uh," says my inner writing teacher. "Not so fast, writing pupil. You can't spell it out so easily for the reader. You have to be more subtle. Your reader will appreciate it." *Sigh* So that means I have to think up anecdotes that will illuminate the dynamics of Meg and Henry's relationship.
Good writers are able to invest these little anecdotes with poignancy. They dream up episodes that will resonate with readers. Really good writers are able to communicate the depths of a person's psyche, the motives behind a person's actions in just a few words. Bare naked descriptions. Unfortunately, I tend to be a bit verbose in my writing. I start out with a scene that I think will cover two pages, and it ends up being twenty. Why write ten words when you could write thirty-five?
But that was not actually my dilemma, not this go around. My problem was thinking up a magical story that would give insight into Meg and how she interacted with Henry.
So I've kept an eye out for examples the past several days, and lucky me, I came up with two.
The Father through the Window
The first came from NPR. I didn't catch the whole story, unfortunately, but I managed to pick up the nuts and bolts. A young black boy is sitting in his classroom, looking through the window, a bit bored by the day's lesson. On the sidewalk outside, he notices a man walking through the snowy, blustery day. It is his father. The boy is inundated with emotion. No one will stop to pick up his father, deliver him the ten miles he must travel to get to work. The boy wants to acknowledge his father, feels guilty that he is sitting in a nice warm classroom while his father battles the elements outside to get to a job that allows the boy to maintain the lifestyle he has. But he knows it is his job to sit in that classroom, to get an education.
I was struck with the poignancy of this story. It communicates a wealth of information with the briefest of snapshots into the boy's life. Mucho impressive!
The Miserable, Limbless Experiment
My second example comes from a novel I just finished, The Diviners by Libba Bray. In it, there is an anecdote describing the past tragedies of one of the characters, named Jericho, and explaining his weird mechanical innards.
The character tells how he suffered from polio as a child and was cured by experimental medicine at a hospital. There were others who took part in the experiment as well. One of them was a man who was missing his legs, an arm, too, if I remember correctly.
Unfortunately, the medicine began to have strange effects. The limbless man began to see things that weren't there. He was going crazy. They had to amputate his remaining arm. Somehow the man was later found dead. He had hanged himself in his room. The hospital staff couldn't figure out how a man with no arms and no legs managed to hang himself. It was a mystery.
Jericho explains that he killed the man, his friend. The man had begged him to put him out of his misery. Jericho took compassion on him and obliged.
This little tidbit tells volumes about Jericho, what he has suffered, why he is such a serious, melancholy figure. And within that story is an even shorter one that reveals the reason why Jericho is able to help his friend kill himself.
His friend tells about the war, World War II, and how he came across a German soldier who had had his insides blown away. "[H]e was just lying there in agony." The two exchange a look, and the man--Jericho's friend--put the man out of his misery. "He didn't do it with anger, as an enemy, but as a fellow man, one soldier helping another."
It is partially because of this miniature story that Jericho is able to help his friend take his own life.
Henry Loves Meg; Does Meg Love Henry?
I did finally come up with a simple story to illustrate Meg's relationship with Henry. Not only that, it reveals a little bit about her past and why she is burdened with her father's death. I hope it works. Maybe it will, but I will continue to look out for these tiny little stories I've described in this post. Is there a name for them other than "anecdotes" and "little stories"?
Word and Book Lover.