Alright, kids, put your seat-belts on. I'm about to blow you and all your preconceived notions right out of the water.
What's the number one rule of writing? Show of hands.
I'm betting a good portion of you out there in Internets land are saying "Show, don't tell."
Well I mean duh, right? That's first grade. Nobody wants to read a book and get told. Paint a picture with words. Show what's happening, let the reader see it and understand. Readers are smart people, right?
Wait, no. Readers are smart people. You're right about that.
I'm talking about the other thing you said. "Show don't tell." is NOT the golden rule. Don't get me wrong, it's important. It's vital. But this is the silver rule. Rule number 2 on the list of rules. It's the first rule you can and should break. When the revolution comes, that rule will be up against the wall.
You get it?
So what is Rule #1? I believe it was Hitchcock who put it so elegantly as: "Drama is life with the dull parts taken out." I like to take this a step further and say "Fiction is life with the boring parts taken out." Because people tend to get stuck on the word drama for all the wrong reasons and also because I like to speak broadly on the process of creating fiction. Oh and if this isn't direct enough, the other way I like to put it is: "Cut the crap."
Cut it right out. Find all those bits that are boring and you scrap them.
Sadly it's not easy. Quite often the boring bits hold the excitement together. Sometimes you just have to let the world know that your character went and took a nap. It's not interesting but sadly it is important and if you took out the part where he/she takes a nap then you end up with a broken narrative.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is when you tell. Nobody wants to be shown all the little details about how your character took a nap. Just tell us he went and took a nap. If you show us all the steps and all the details involved then we're going to get bored. I'm already getting bored just thinking about this hypothetical nap focused prose.
So tell. Tell the shit out of it. That should take you a couple of sentences and then we can get back to something interesting. You can start showing again, now. Much better. Aren't you glad that-
"But Carl, how do I know if it's interesting or not?"
Huh? Oh, okay. Sure, let's touch on that for a while. I've got some time to kill.
This is no secret but it's still nice to have things spelt out for us. The interesting part of your story is the conflict. This is more or less what Hitchcock was talking about when he mentioned drama. The essence of drama is conflict. At the heart of every interesting story is a conflict.
Here's a simple conflict: Your protagonist wants to do X. An antagonist doesn't want them to do X. Your protagonist and antagonist come into conflict. Usually the protagonist does Y to the antagonist so he can then do X.
But more importantly, the heart of most scenes should also focus on a conflict. When there is a conflict going on, there is something interesting to read about. This is when you should show. So in effect what we have is a central conflict that defines your plot. This is established in the first act of your fiction. In a very straight forward story like Indiana Jones and The Raiders of The Lost Ark the conflict that defines the plot is Indie wants to get the Ark of The Covenant and the NAZIs want to get the Ark of The Covenant. Indie and the NAZIs both can't have the Ark so they are in conflict. This is the Central Conflict. One scene requires Indie to get a jeweled talisman off an old flame: Marion. However Marion wants to keep the talisman to herself because she's still mad at Indie over past events. To make matters worse, the NAZIs send an agent to get the Talisman first. Now we have a three way conflict that must be overcome to move the plot forward and bring the characters closer to the resolution of the Central Conflict.
In very broad and easily usable terms there are two kinds of conflicts. External Conflicts and Internal Conflicts. The first involve multiple characters and include fights, arguments, races and the like. The latter involves only one character and includes struggles against addiction, making hard decisions and over coming powerful emotions or motivations. External and Internal conflicts can and often do occur together or side-by-side.
Alright, so let's take a second to recap.
- It is often important to Tell instead of Show
- The interesting scenes are the scenes you Show.
- Interesting scenes are the ones that involve Conflict.
But while you can write fiction that is just conflict after conflict this can be tiring for the writer and the audience. The majority of scenes should be conflict but between the conflict you can still have interesting scenes. These are still scenes that you show and, most importantly, there is still movement. The plot progresses, characters change, stuff is happening.
I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about these Rest scenes right now but I will touch on them. The scenes between conflict should primarily be used to develop characters, set-up or foreshadow later scenes and include exposition. Returning to Raiders of The Lost Ark one such rest scene involves Indie explaining to two military intelligence agents what he thinks the NAZIs are up to and what the Ark of The Covenant is. This scene and the classroom scene that precede it are conflict free but the show us a lot about the character of Indie, they give our protagonist a new goal and point him towards more conflict and they reveal much of the world our characters live in and what the story is about. All of this makes it interesting.
Okay, that's enough on that for now. I'll talk more about Rest scenes another time (Foreshadowing). This should be enough for you to chew for now. Happy writing, kids!