I know, I know: Show, don’t Tell.
And never ever use Talking Heads and As You Know, Bob dialogue to get your story out – and into the head of your readers.
I was so proud of myself for avoiding the above pitfalls, that I was baffled this morning when I realized that the only way to write the current scene was to have it told, one character to another, in a static situation.
Writing Rules and Mortal Sins
The thing is, like all writing ‘rules’ (they really ought to be labeled suggestions, for the damage they cause otherwise), this is another one which can be broken, to great effect, when the breaking is done deliberately and with intent and skill.
Whew! Go for it. Break lots of them rules while you’re at it: the general rule is, if you’re writing third-person multiple pov stories, that the viewpoint character for a scene is the one most affected by the scene.
But this scene is different!
I may be wrong. Someone may write to me after I publish 19.3 and tell me I did it all wrong, and there was a perfectly valid way to do it within the confines of standard practice.
But it made me think, and as a result, I came up with a set of caveats I think apply:
A dozen CAVEATS for Telling, Not Showing
Caveat #1: You can’t do this very often in a story. The story as a whole must still show much more than it tells.
Caveat #2: You can’t do this in the beginning. The problem with so many beginnings is that we don’t care about the characters yet, and we are going to care even less about something boring they tell someone else.
Caveat #3: You can’t do this without a lot of preparation. The reader must be literally panting for you to provide the information, because you’ve been dropping hints and pieces all along.
Caveat #4: There has to be a very strong emotional motivation. Characters have to have very good reasons for dumping in one chunk something they’ve been reluctant to let out.
Caveat #5: The setting must be perfect. Because setting is not the focus of the scene, but the reader has to know exactly where the scene is happening.
Caveat #6: The scene must be static. Nothing else can be allowed to penetrate the occasion. At most, the character hearing the story can interject a careful question to keep the story moving. The whole focus of the scene has to be on the story being told.
Caveat #7: This is not the place to develop characters. The reader must know them very well by this point, which leads to,
Caveat #8: The point of the story is to make a revelation. Don’t waste technique on something unimportant. And,
Caveat #9: It can’t be at the climax of the story. There are far more important things to do at the climax. And you don’t want to tie character’s hands with all these restrictions at a climax.
Caveat #10: There must be no better way to write the scene. You don’t blow all the rules for no reason.
Caveat #11: There will be only two characters present. Because you don’t want to dilute your reader’s attention. And the reader will be strongly identified with one of these characters, possibly wanting this character and the other to make a breakthrough. Just to round out the set,
Caveat #12: Select the wrong point-of-view character. Or, rather, don’t select the obvious character, the one that makes the most sense, the character most affected by the scene. This one I had to think about quite a lot, because it was definitely counter-intuitive.
Complicating matters – who tells the story?
Because, ultimately, by the time you get to this kind of a scene, both characters are going to be well-known to the reader, and the reader needs to be shooken up – climax and story end will follow, and the reader DOESN’T know everything. Readers only THINK they know everything. They would actually rather be surprised.
I remember listening to the audiobook of Our Lady of the Forest, by David Guterson (author of Snow Falling on Cedars), getting closer and closer to the end of the story, leaving himself absolutely no way out of the looming disaster, and me wondering how the heck he was going to give me an end which FIT the story – and was SATISFYING. It seemed to me only one of those goals could be fulfilled, and I was not looking forward to hearing the hand-waving that would be necessary to ‘splain things to the reader.
And then being absolutely flabbergasted by how he DID.
That’s my goal, getting to the end of Book 1, that its end must both FIT and be SATISFYING.
So I chose, for this scene I’m talking about, 19.3 (watch for it), to tell the little tale from the pov of the wrong character – and find other ways for the character most affected to express that effect.
SOLUTION: Trust the READER
It occurred to me, that, because this is so far into the story, that the Reader STANDS IN for the character most affected – because by this point the Reader KNOWS that character so well that when the non-pov character has no interior monologues, and is allowed minimal dialogue, the effect is going to happen in the READER.
At least I hope so, and have planned it so. MY readers will tell me if I achieve it.