At the most recent Knoxville Writers’ Guild meeting, I had the pleasure of hearing screenwriter Lisa Soland speak about “What the Playwright Can Teach the Writer.” Lisa is fantastic, and I learned a lot from her. She had good tips—about writing and about life. One idea that stuck with me, though, came during her discussion of conveying meaning without explicitly saying the thing.
In other words, show don’t tell.
The example she used was from a play, in which the characters were discussing the garden, while actually discussing a miscarriage. (Sorry, I didn’t note the title.) Of course, as a fiction writer, my mind went to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” If you haven’t read it, I seriously suggest it.
Lisa argued for providing information this way, rather than spelling it out. “We don’t say things,” she said. “That’s why we have therapists.”
I started thinking, Our characters don’t say what they mean to each other, but they should say it to us.
I’m playing with two different aspects of writing, here:
As a writer, doing a good job with #2 makes #1 simpler. If we truly know our characters, we have a much easier time expressing the situation without outright saying what’s happening. With a deep understand of our characters, it becomes simpler to write from our characters’ perspectives—rather than from the author’s perspective, or the reader’s. I’m not talking about formal perspective, here—1st person, 3rd person. I’m talking about getting inside your characters’ heads to the point that you don’t have to run everything through your own filters. Sort of like the difference between translating French word-by-word into English and simply hearing something in French and understanding. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one. When this extra “filter” is gone, we feel like we’re in the zone. The words just flow, almost as though we’re transcribing rather than creating. And we don’t feel the need to explain everything.
Be someone your character can talk to, can vent to. Sit down with a computer, a notebook, a tape recorder—whatever does the job—and ask your character the stereotypical questions. What was your childhood like? What would it take to make you feel happier and more satisfied? How does that make you feel?
Write the questions down beforehand, or just let them come. Ask your character about backstory and about plot points. Ask them why they reacted certain ways. Ask them what they’re afraid of.
And don’t forget to ask them the big question, the giant question, the blimp over a ballfield question:
What do you want?
Because as we all know from movies, motivation is incredibly important to an actor’s portrayal of characters. Of course, a writer would need to know characters’ motivations! And don’t just say, “to defeat so-and-so” or “to fulfill my destiny.” Those answers are cliched, and your readers will see right through them. If your characters doesn’t know why they are doing what they do, your readers won’t care whether or not they’re successful.
So here’s the challenge:
Hold therapy sessions for your characters.
Record them, write them down, chisel them in stone. Whatever. Just use them to inform your narrative. And please, share snippets in the comments below! I would love to see how you’re able to develop your characters using this method.
Photo by Sergey Sivuschkin (text and watermark added)