I attended a terrific workshop the other day, and I came home with a whole lot of thoughts. I’m not a workshop kind of person. I’m kind of an anti-meeting person altogether, so this was somewhat of an anomaly for me. I’ve always written on my own, albeit aided by invaluable words of wisdom from other authors on the internet and in books. I’m a bit of a hermit, and I’m also an insanely busy hermit. The idea of sitting stationary for a few hours, listening to other people talk, doesn’t always entice me. But I really wanted to meet these authors, since they’re all from my area. Plus, they’re all members of the RWA, and I’m not, so I wanted to get a feel for what I might be missing. I'm so glad I went.
What struck me the most was how different a lot of the perspectives were … and how different some were from mine. I had a couple of beefs, but I’m keeping those to myself, because really, everything in writing is subjective (except for grammar and spelling). Nothing I write is any more valid than something anyone else might write.
But I woke up this morning with a niggling thought—you know those? That little voice that won’t shut up long enough for you to convince it that you’re too busy to write a blog? Anyway, mine was insistent, and I did think it interesting, so today’s blog is about SEX.
Writing sex, anyway.
One of the questions put to the panel yesterday was by an author uncomfortable about writing graphic sex and/or violence. I can’t recall all the responses, but I got the general feel that the author should just do it, dare herself, be free! And yet … I’ve written a lot, and I still am uncomfortable writing either. In this day and age, where we’re relatively dulled to violence and hard to shock when it comes to sex, do we have to juice it up? Write such rip roaring scenes that you’ll get past the rest?
In my opinion, no.
I’ve written relatively sexy stuff (which I haven’t even considered publishing), and that includes a couple of wedding nights. And oh boy, I’ve written violence. My most controversial scene of “Under the Same Sky” was one of the first things I ever wrote, and it shocked me to the core. I had no idea I had that in me! I wrote absolutely everything my character saw, everything she heard, everything she felt. Through my words, the reader knew every little thing that was going on. Then I remembered that readers had brains and imaginations of their own. I cut, cut, cut, and in the end I came up with something a couple of people have called “Fade to Black” violence. I created the setting, built the tension, put up signposts and fences so the reader couldn’t avoid the scene, but I let the writing suffice. Did I have to indicate every kick, every punch, every thrust? Did I have to repeat the abusive language those creatures used? No. Absolutely not.
When I’m reading, two things will prompt me to set a book aside, unfinished. Predictability and Redundancy. Do I know just about everything about the characters and story within the first few pages? Yes? Not interested. Do I need to learn the details of how to tie a knot? The material on the chairs in a room? The weather? Unless these things are directly related to the storyline or are a central focus of the scene, I could care less. Touch on them, but let’s not dwell, people. I get bored.
The same goes—for me—with writing sex. I figure we all know how sex works, right? Insert Tab A into Slot B, create friction … Why do I have to include thrusting or sweating or groping or panting? And don’t get me going on descriptions of how she’s feeling during her orgasm. I can build to what’s going on through other actions, but once my characters are into it, they’re on their own.
On the other hand, I’m not going to just shut the door on what’s going on. Take this example from “Sound of the Heart.” It was actually pretty graphic for me.
He wanted her to love this, to feel the exhilaration he felt. He wanted her to want more. He certainly did not intend for this to be their one and only time. He tried varying his speed depending on the little purring noises she issued, then realised he couldn't stand thinking anymore. He closed his eyes as a familiar, delicious rumble began deep within him, taking ahold and growing, wave after wave, taking possession of his mind and body.
Not one thrust, not one unnecessary grab, though I’m sure there were plenty in his mind. I could have gone into the down and dirty descriptions, but in my heart, that was enough. I didn’t look away, but I didn’t take away from Dougal’s moment by over-narrating, either.
I think there are three distinct schools of thought on writing sex and violence. The first would be the hands-off, the author who wants nothing to do with writing more than a peck on the cheek. The second is the full frontal, go-for-it, no holds barred (or add in holds just for the thrill of it, if you’re into erotica). But the third is one that people often forget, and that’s Fade To Black.
What I want to say to readers is ... if you’re looking for more graphic stuff from me, it isn’t forthcoming. I am in my characters’ heads already. They deserve a little privacy now and then.
What I want to say to writers is ... if you are uncomfortable about writing sex or violence but it’s necessary for the story/scene, consider writing Fade To Black.
This article was originally written for my favourite online writing site, Scribophile.com
. I highly recommend you popping over there if you're serious about learning about the craft of writing well. Using First Person POV
I'm writing this article in the First Person Narrative (Point Of View). That means I am going to tell you how this device is used from my perspective.
In contrast, I could write it as a Third Person POV, meaning I'd say something like, “This article is written from the third person narrative to demonstrate how the author uses the device.”
One of the first lessons I learned about writing effectively was that in order to engage the reader, I had to put myself directly in the story. Well, what could make a story more inclusive than by writing in First Person POV? After all, it's all about me! The prevalent pronouns used in First Person POV are: I, me, my, mine (singular), and we, us, our, ours (plural). The narrative follows the line of “I did this,” or “he held my hand.” That's why this method is often a favourite device for debut authors.
But while First Person POV is “all about me,” that isn't exactly true. It is not all about the author (unless you are working with a memoire). It's all about the character. It's up to the author to become that character.
First Person POV emanates from the main character of a book, or from a close associate (think of dear Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes). Often it is used in memoire writing, where the story must obviously be told from one central perspective. First Person POV allows the reader to get deeply rooted in the character's head and thereby achieve a tighter emotional connection. To make the connection even stronger, the character lets the reader in on secrets that no one else knows.
The trouble is that when you decide to go this route, you and your readers are limited to that one perspective. It can be done effectively, but it can also become very insular. Writing in this style can easily evolve into “stream of consciousness,” and that is a tricky business. When done well, there is really nothing that can compare to beautiful stream of consciousness writing. I'm thinking right now of Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (because I just finished reading it), though there are many other examples. When done poorly, stream of consciousness can fall completely flat.
With this POV it's important that the author narrate the story through actions as well as dialogue. Your character not only must stay involved and engaged with what's going on around them, but they must also stay consistent in their reactions. The problem is that if the author is inexperienced and not well enough acquainted with the “Show vs Tell” concept, the opposite can happen: the reader can become bored and feel trapped within the narrative.
For this reason, try not to overuse the word “I” when you're writing First Person POV. Especially if you are prone to using “I” at the beginning of a sentence. There are ways around this kind of repetition.
I love that particular flavour of ice cream … could also be written as
That particular flavour of ice cream is a favourite of mine.
I know this room … could also be written in the passive voice as
This room is familiar to me.
Even though the author is writing from First Person POV, a story can't be solely about one person. It's about how that person reacts to who and what is around them. The difficulty many people face when using First Person POV is including the other characters' thoughts and reactions. When you write in first person, you have to remember you are writing in your character's voice, NOT your author's voice. Your character cannot possibly know for sure what is going on in the other characters' head.
Not: He walked away from me, his head tilted slightly as he thought about my question.
But: He walked away from me, his head tilted slightly as if he were considering my question.
How could your character possibly know what the other guy's thinking about? Maybe he's wondering what to have for supper or what time it is. While the author might know the answer, the main character cannot.
Some authors like to switch from First Person POV to Third Person POV, and doing that can open up an even wider scope for both the author and the reader. But if this is done too often, or too close together (as in every other paragraph), the technique can drive a reader nuts. How can the reader connect to any of the characters if they are repeatedly yanked out of their heads? If you are drawn to writing in this style, separate the sections and label them. That gives the reader the opportunity to change their headspace before diving in again.
The First Person POV technique demands that the author keep the main character's personality in mind at all times. Think background, culture, education, etc. If you're talking from the perspective of a lobster fisherman, he's probably not going to wax poetic about classical music. I mean … he might, but only if he's an exception to the rule. If your heroine is prim and proper, she's probably not going to revel in the sight of muddy boots treading across her clean floor, and she most likely won't talk with potty mouth.
- The author must become the narrative character.
- Connect on an intimate level with your reader—share secrets.
- Be aware that “stream of consciousness” writing can be beautiful—or the opposite, if not handled with extreme care.
- Limit the repetitious use of “I” whenever possible.
- When writing, always imagine you are the character. Reflect that in their actions and words. Be consistent
- Be particularly aware of using “Show” rather than “Tell” in order to avoid dull narrative.
- Don't let your main character guess at the other characters' thoughts or emotions.
- Don't change characters' perspectives within a chapter or paragraph.
When done right, First Person POV can create a compelling, emotional story—sometimes even stronger than a story written in Third Person POV—because the character and reader are connected through an intimate, one on one communication. The most important—and most difficult—part of writing in this style is creating a character who is deserving of the readers' attention. If you don't, it's easy for a reader to get bored and set your book aside. If you do, it can be magic.
I can’t remember how many times I read this when I first bopped around online, looking at critique sites, listening in on forums, reading comments on writing. Show, don’t tell. Huh.
After I got hit over the head with it enough times, I understood the concept. The author must envelop the reader in the story, fill his senses with setting, character, emotions, action and everything else. In effect, the author must make it possible for the Reader to forget both that they are the Reader, and the fact that they’re reading a story.
Sounds simple enough.
Ha! Personally, I think that part of writing can be almost as difficult as the infamous Agent search. However, it can also be the most rewarding. And if it’s done well, the Reader goes away with an image in their head, something they’ll remember.
In order for an author to Show, not Tell, they must allow their thoughts to be completely “at one” with their writing. Throw in all those techniques and tools we writers are always talking about: metaphors, similes, dialogue, etc. For me it’s kind of a zen thing. While your fingers are flying and your mind is racing along with the action, it’s easy to try to keep up by writing something like,
She ran into the forest, needing to escape. That, my friends, is Telling.
If I really take my time and sink into the scene, I am able to Show.
The pounding of her feet was background to her laboured gasps; her heartbeat raced. The trees closed on her like wolves around an injured deer, their gnarled branches clawing and scraping her sweat-soaked skin. The air was heavy, wet from the storm, and slippery, twisted roots jutted up to grasp at her exhausted feet. Escape jeered from far away. <-------- Goal
You may not like my example. Actually, I’m not convinced either. Could be overdone. But let’s consider it anyway. What are the differences between the two examples?
Basic nouns and verbs
Few or no adjectives and adverbs
Metaphors: Can you see the wolves/trees? Can you sense the menace?
Other devices such as Personification (of the trees and roots, and even of escape)
Covers senses such as: Touch (clawing and scraping), smell (the heavy air), emotion (panic)
Paints clear, precise images: describes details about trees, background on weather and conditions on the ground, location (faraway) of her goal.
On the other hand,
too much Showing can destroy a piece. Too many descriptive words, listing unimportant facts and features ...
In my opinion, there are basically three ways to describe one thing.
The first is Telling.
The cowboy was blond and looked good. <-------- Avoid
The second is what I call a “shopping list”.
He had blond hair that hung to his shoulders and it was messy. He wore a red, green and black plaid flannel shirt that was so old it needed to be patched. It had a square pocket on the left side. His silver belt buckle was large and not very shiny. It was the shape of a wild, bucking bronco with a cowboy on top. <-------- Avoid
The third is to Show.
Long, golden blond waves, tousled by indifference, tickled the solid slope of his shoulders. He’d tucked in one side of his flannel shirt, leaving the other to hang carelessly over his thigh. A tarnished silver buckle winked from behind the worn material. <-------- Goal
Another technique is to throw in a little dialogue. Everyone wants to hear dialogue anyway.
The office manager stormed into her office and demanded coffee. <----- Avoid
Her head jerked up as the office manager stormed into her office and slammed the door behind him. “I want coffee, and I want it now,” he demanded. <-------- Goal
So ... Show, don’t tell:
1. Use effective, descriptive nouns and verbs, adding necessary adjectives and adverbs whenever needed. Don’t overdo it.
2. Cover as many senses as possible: sight, touch, sound, smell, taste, intuition
3. Use writing techniques like personification, metaphors, etc
4. Don’t list things, describe them. And only bother with the ones that matter.
5. Paint clear, concise images that will swallow up the Reader.
Here. Try this. I’ll get you started, and you make this into something memorable ...
The editor hoped her advice helped.