Saturday, 19 December 2009

Never Say I'm Nervous

Show, don't tell, has got to be in the top three of writing instructions, along with Write what you know, and Kill your darlings. I think it's the most useful for a writer to remember when you're actually writing. So, maybe a character is nervous. How do you show this? Off the top of my head they could...bite a lip, fiddle with a sleeve, tuck hair behind ears, have a raised heart beat, feel nauseous, shake, repeatedly clear their throat, wipe a sweaty face, nibble a fingernail, clutch a handbag...That's ten actions without too much trouble that all show nervousness. Scatter of a few of these around and you're done. Job sorted.

But why does showing work, where telling doesn't? I think it's because we ask the reader to do some of the work, and the more work the reader does, the more absorbed they are. Imagine being in the audience of a third rate tennis match. You watch the game, but your attention wanders...perhaps you could go for an icecream at the next break, ooh, that woman's wearing a funny dress, I wonder if it's going to rain...Then the cry goes up - the umpire has had to retire and you - yes, you - are going to take over. Now you have to watch each point carefully, make decisions and without noticing, the next hour flies past.

It's the same with writing. 'Imogen felt nervous' only requires the reader to absorb the information. It's passive, attention may wander, the book may be put down. Compare it to: 'I feel fine,' Imogen said, clearing her throat and wiping sweaty palms on her crumpled dress. Now the reader has to pay attention, has to deduce that while Imogen may claim to feel fine, her actions show us that she doesn't. The reader has to be active, has to work, has to pay attention. This reader will read to the end and find it a satisfying, worthwhile experience - and that's what we all want, isn't it?

PS And if you're still not convinced think of this. The first version takes 3 words. The other is 16. Just think of difference to your daily word count!