Thursday, November 29, 2012

Moving Beyond "Show Don't Tell"

I’m on a quest.  I’ve been reading Stephen King lately.  I’m working my way through Skeleton Crew, one of his many short story anthologies.  It’s a mixed bag of sorts, but most of it is splendid stuff. 

After each story, I’ll talk to my wife about it.  The conversation goes something like this:

“So there’s this tale where these four college kids go down to a lake, and on the lake there’s this oil-slick.  It traps them on a raft in the middle of the lake, and it starts sucking them under the water and EATING them!”

“Wait, the oil slick traps them?”


(laughing) “That sounds really stupid.”

“Yeah…uh...well, it’s a lot better the way HE tells it.”

Why is it that when Stephen King gets an idea I’m hooked, but when I look at my own writing it sounds flat and—well, for lack of a better word—made up?

So I’ve been taking a really close look at his short stories.  In just a few pages I can get an opening hook, a short plot, some characters, and a zinger of an ending.  In contrast, I’ve also been trolling through looking for cheap self-published schlock.  I’m hoping that in the process I can begin to tell what King (and other authors) does right, and what I (and the other self-published authors who aren’t Stephen King) do wrong.

No small challenge, there.

One thing that stands out to me are his descriptions.  They go way beyond the showing-not-telling kinds of depictions that we learn in workshops and writing classes.  King’s descriptions come alive.  Check this one out:
In the year 1927 we were playing jazz in a speak-easy just south of Morgan, Illinois, a town seventy miles from Chicago.  It was real hick country, not another big town for twenty miles in any direction.  But there were a lot of farmboys with a hankering for something stronger than Moxie after a hot day in the field, and a lot of would-be jazz-babies out stepping with their drugstore-cowboy boyfriends.  There were also some married men (you always know them, friend, they might as well be wearing signs) coming far out of their way to be where no one would recognize them while they cut a rug with their not-quite-legit lassies.
—The Wedding Gig

The thing that stands out the most for me is vibe.  Just listen to it.  The year is 1927, at a speak-easy seventy miles from Chicago, real hick country.  Would-be jazz-babies out stepping with their drugstore-cowboy boyfriends.  Married men coming out to cut a rug with their not-quite-legit lassies.

Can you feel it?

The other thing that grabs me is the personality that King attributes to the people that he’s describing.  Instead of describing individuals, he describes in caricatures.  He gives you a feel for what the people are like, and then the reader’s brain just fills in the rest.  

Listen once more: farmboys with a hankering for something stronger than Moxie after a hot day.  Jazz-babies with their drugstore-cowboy boyfriends.

This goes way beyond showing-not-telling.  This is more than merely cutting out stray adverbs, shunning passive voice, and pouring on the cleverly-placed action verbs.

This is vibe. It's a focus on mood, and atmosphere, and what's going on, and who's working the scene.

I’ve read enough of King's stuff to see him do this over and over.  Whenever he does a description, he doesn’t show the reader, so much as he describes what the thing is like.  He sketches its character, its personality…and your brain just fills in the rest.  This is brilliant stuff.

Here's another example (paraphrased a bit, for brevity):
The girls had come over to the apartment at midafternoon...there was a case of beer in the fridge and a new night Ranger album on Randy's battered stereo. The four of them set about getting pleasantly oiled.  Afer a while the talk had turned to the end of the long Indian summer they had been enjoying. The radio was predicting flurries for Wednesday.  LaVerne had advanced the opinion that weathermen predicting snow flurries in October should be shot.  No one had disagreed.
—The Raft

I like this scene.  Two college guys, having their girlfriends over.  I can hear Night Ranger blaring Sister Christian.  They're relaxing after a day of classes and studies.  I can hear the talk.

So I decided to hunt for a nice boring description in my own story and see if I couldn’t liven it up a little.  I picked this gem:

We stopped at the head table.  Lord Braxton sat in his great chair, a drinking horn in one hand and a thin wedge of cheese in the other.  Lady Aderyn leaned on his side.  Their children sat around them eating and playing with their food.  A trio of musicians played off to one side.

Yawn.  Let’s see if I can’t do better.  Instead of pouring on more description, see if I can’t toss in some vibe.
We stopped at the head table.  Lord Braxton sprawled in his great chair, a drinking horn in one hand and a spoon in the other.  He shoveled stew into his mouth like he was feeding an ox.  Lady Aderyn leaned on his side where she could whisper in his ear if she wanted, yet keep within arm’s reach of a wandering child.  Their children buzzed around them, too excited to eat or stay in their seats, playing with their food, reveling in the evening’s cheer.  A trio of musicians played off to one side.  I hadn’t seen them before.  They looked like the travelling kind that made their living from hall to hall. 

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