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Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Understanding Show Don’t Tell

Writing Tip — Learning Deep POV from Movies

tower-viewerw-698847_1280“You have trouble with show, don’t tell.”

If one more agent told me that at the conference, I would tear my hair out. Or their hair out. Either way, I’d make the conference unforgettable. What prevented me from taking this drastic action was the recommendation of the book Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It) by Janice Hardy.

Once I had studied the book, I though I was finally grasping the concept through the idea of deep point of view (POV). At around the same time, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen in years, Inferno from 1953. As I watched this country noir about a wife and her boyfriend leaving her injured husband to die in the desert, I realized that is the perfect film example of deep POV.

Deep POV is the writing technique in which everything the character thinks and senses is in the present moment. If your POV character is fleeing for her life, she can’t ruminate on the injustices her sister has committed against her over the last twenty years. She only. thinks of how to escape or turn and attack her pursuer. Deep POV gives a writers a structure that makes info dumps, such as backstories, very difficult. In every piece of fiction, somethings just need to be told to the reader, but the writer has to slip these in a natural or logical way using deep POV so as not to destroy the illusion that the reader is perceiving the literary world through the mind of the POV character.

In Inferno, there are two story threads: scenes with the wife and boyfriend trying to lead authorities astray as they look for the husband and scenes with the husband trying to survive in the Californian desert with a broken leg. Robert Ryan, the actor who plays the husband, is alone in all his scenes. So he does a voice-over to let the audience know what he’s thinking. All his thoughts pertain directly to the situation he’s in. The director didn’t add flashbacks to show how the marriage went on the rocks, which I think would ruin the suspense of the film. When the husband’s thoughts do wander, it makes perfect sense for the scenes, such as when he’s dying of thirst and he remembers how water is more plentiful during the springtime in the desert.

Another aspect of show, don’t tell is not stating the emotions characters experience, but creating gestures, facial expressions, and dialogue to convey their emotions. In Inferno, Robert Ryan’s actions and expressions perfectly match his thoughts and feelings. When he tells himself a joke, his half-smile conveys the humor but also how dumb he thinks it is. When he sits by a campfire, considering what to do with his wife and her boyfriend if he escapes, his face is grim and determined. When he thinks the boyfriend has returned to make sure he’s dead, he freezes as the awful realization of who is looking for him sinks in. Then he frantically puts out a signal fire he started and flings himself under a stunted tree. All these actions show his terror.

Robert Ryan is such a masterful actor that he makes all his scenes alone compelling, and even though his character isn’t likable at the start of the movie, he makes you sympathize with the horrible situation he’s in. If you like adventure or crime movies, you  should go out of your way to find Inferno.

What other movies have you seen where you feel you’ve really climbed into the mind of a character?

 

 

 

Writing Tip — Immerse Your Readers in Deep POV

swimmingw1-2616746_1280The one piece of writing advice I have run into more than any other is “show, don’t tell”. It wasn’t until I read two books on the subject, Understanding Show Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy and Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson, that I understood that when you immerse your readers in deep POV, you guard against telling and are more likely to show.

I put this into practice for the first time last January when I wrote the rough draft of my short story, “Debt to Pay”, which will appear in the anthology From the Lake to the River. To achieve deep POV, I had to imagine my entire story through the senses of my first person narrator, sixteen-year-old Jay. It was as if my rural setting in Wayne National Forest was a world in Minecraft, and Jay was my avatar.

What amazed me was how thoroughly I experienced Jay’s environment through this technique. I saw the world through his eyes, heard it through his ears. When I finished writing the action sequence at the climax, I was breathing hard, and my heart was racing. Deep POV made my imagination come alive and I hope I have transferred the vividness into words.

The disadvantage with deep POV is that it can confuse your readers. I discovered that when I asked relatives and friends to read my rough draft. In general, they thought the story made sense, but they became confused during the action at the end. I had captured the chaos Jay experiences so well that my readers found it chaotic, too. As fellow writers Cindy Thomson and Michelle Levigne told me, sometimes a writer needs to insert tiny tells to help the reader. Your reader shouldn’t work hard to follow your story. I know when I have to deeply concentrate to figure out a plot, I may just give up.

So I returned to my rough draft and inserted tells to help the readers follow the action. But I had to make the tells seems natural for Jay to think since I was still using deep POV.

How do you get into the mind of your POV characters?

Writing Tip — Show, Don’t Tell

The two books shown above helped me tremendously in understanding “show, don’t tell”. They are easy to read, not expensive, and give detailed explanations about what “telling” prose is versus “showing” prose.

Understanding Show, Don’t Tell

Janice Hardy’s book is the longer of the two, and the one I read first. Author and agent Tess Emily Hall recommended it. Ms. Hard cover many topics that come under “telling” prose — point of view (POV), narrative distance, backstory, info dump, and more.

What I found most helpful were lists of words that usually indicate a writer is engaging in “telling”. An appendix conveniently gathers all these word together.

Her chapter “Things That Affect Telling” takes the same paragraph and rewrites it in “showing” prose from first-person POV, third-person single POV, and third-person omniscient POV. She dissects the differences in the writing styles, and that kind of examination is what I really needed.

Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View

Sharyn Kopf, an author and freelance editor who is working on my novel, recommended this book. It covers a lot of the same ground as Understanding but includes worksheets at the end of each chapter with sample answers.

I found the chapter “Write Lively, Linear Prose” to be the most helpful. Sometimes, because writers know how all the action is going to end, they write it in the wrong order.

An example from Rivet:

“The hot, stuffy air caused my head to spin.”

If I was writing in deep POV, showing, not telling, I would describe first the character noticing something wrong with his head, then have the character pinpoint the cause. I am paying close attention to the order of my action, so I don’t put the cart before the horse.

What sources have you found that teach “show, don’t tell”?

Writing Tip — Writing Zone

swimmingw-2616746_1280Recently, I was attempting to edit, or maybe I should say, re-re-re-edit my YA novel, using techniques I had learned in Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy. Agent and author Tessa Emily Hall recommended the book to me.

While I was working, I dropped into my writing zone. It doesn’t happen very often, and usually only when I am doing original writing, straight out of my imagination. When I get into my zone, my entire mind is occupied with writing. I’m not thinking of anything else, not the laundry, or how my kids are doing at school, or even what’s going on outside my window.

It feels like I’m underwater, immersed in a strange, new world. When I surface from my writing zone, I might actually need to gulp a breath, as if I’ve just come up diving deep. My surroundings seem strange to me. When I take a break from writing, it may take me several minutes to over an hour to acclimatize myself to reality again.

Do you ever dive into a writing zone? What does it feel like? When does it occur? I would love to hear what other writers experience!

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