Writing tips: Letting characters tell stories

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.

Make sense?

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33 thoughts on “Writing tips: Letting characters tell stories

  1. Tharcion

    Okay so… I hate writing rules. You say up near the top that they should be suggestions (and then you put in so many caveats on your idea that you make it sound like a rule). I think they should be warnings: if you’re doing this then someone is going to call you a bad writer for sure, but also you should look at how it can be done better.

    With ‘Show Don’t Tell’ I think the issue is primarily one of degree. People try so hard to avoid exposition scenes that they don’t think about how they can be used properly. A few thoughts:

    “Caveat #1: You can’t do this very often in a story.” Well I do it all the time. I often have scenes where facts are handed out or explained through conversations between characters.

    “Caveat #2: You can’t do this in the beginning”/”Caveat #3: You can’t do this without a lot of preparation.” Generally yes, but it occurs that the open scene of my first novel is largely a conversation involving three people. And it works because…

    “Caveat #7: This is not the place to develop characters.” Conversation and the way people speak is the perfect way to develop characters. The way people within the world react to one another is one of the best ways to demonstrate who and what they are. Some revelation brought up during the Tell may well change someone’s perspective, or reveal character details not noticed before.

    “Caveat #11: There will be only two characters present.” Well, no. I frequently have a number of characters present. If your cast list has fifteen participants (I’ve never quite got that bad) then you can have the scene between two of them, sure, but only if you want to ensure your character comes over as an organisational idiot. Obviously this depends upon the nature of the ‘revelation’ you’re going for.

    “Caveat #8: The point of the story is to make a revelation.” If it’s really a revelation. If someone is either explaining something which will come as a shock to the person they’re explaining it to or the people there are supposed to discover something from the telling, then you are Showing, not Telling.

    As with every other “writing rule” I’ve ever been faced with, Show Don’t Tell, is taken far too literally and seen in black and white when it should be viewed in shades of grey (possibly 50, though I have a preference for 64). When one of your characters is being Told a story and that story is dramatic and revelatory, then the chances are that having them tell the story is the best way of handling it.

    I mean, think about it: if Show Don’t Tell was really, absolutely true, pretty much every Agatha Christie would have been consigned to the bin. She ends every one of them with a talking head explaining who did it, why, and what with, with a room full of participants (character development optional, but possible).

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I miss Agatha Christie – but some of her stuff is pretty creaky by modern standards.

      Your mileage WILL vary – these are the thoughts I had when I worked out why I needed to do these particular scenes differently. Each one of these caveats, separately, has been challenged somewhere in my writing. No argument there. But something in my subconscious was resisting doing these scenes the way I usually do them (there are plenty of examples posted – a whole novel’s worth – on the Pride’s Children tab), so I stopped to work it out for myself.

      Nothing I write any more about writing has ‘do things this way or else’ attached to it. I find it marvels me to see how and why I do things – and that I have a very weird brain.

      These posts are for entertainment value – and some people find them provocative for examining how they do things.

      I believe in conscious writing, doing things deliberately for effect. These scenes were DIFFERENT – so I stopped to ask WHY. And being a writer, wrote it down. And being parsimonious, threw it up there for anyone who cares to read.

      I see it made you think about your own work: purpose achieved.

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      1. Tharcion

        “and that I have a very weird brain”

        My dear lady, we ALL have very weird brains, though I’ll accept that some of us are weirder than others.

        As for Agatha, people are still writing those revelatory scenes in modern fiction, just the way they were done in the 20s. Sometimes breaking “the rules” is just doing what “the rules” say you should do. It’s why I don’t like rules.

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  2. hpetty42

    I found this really useful as I’m about to embark on a second draft and have thought a lot about characters telling their stories.

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  3. D. Villa-Smith

    I feel I have a fresh, new style in my storytelling that allows the story to flow in an easy to read approach, that both unites the reader to the characters, and gives the characters lives of their own.
    I read the rigid rules of writing, and parallel my own works to them, and wonder if it really must be confined to a formula of X Y and Z, when it’s high fantasy.
    High Fantasy is meant to bend some rules, because on the pallet of the page, the author is painting a world, an epic, and blending the characters, all to fit harmoniously with one another. Not all High Fantasy involves epic quests with objects of power, or slaying the dragons so the villagers are free. Not all are about the Hero’s journey.
    One must have room to allow their style to flow, in the midst of rules and expectations. And when pursued well, the author is applauded for their “fresh perspective”.
    We need more fresh perspective. Art, even, has evolved since the first brush hit the first canvas. Allow yourself to tell your story the way your heart desires it so, and then once you have finished it, refine it and polish it. Forget about /how/ you’re supposed to tell a story, and just do it.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      They say the time to think of the reader is after the story is clear in your head. ‘They’ say a lot of things.

      I think you can do whatever you like, as long as your readers – the special people who like what you write – are pulled into and along with it.

      Up until you decide to include readers in the equation, though, you get to do everything your way. Even if later you find out you’ve broken some mystical guideline.

      High Fantasy is indeed free to do its own thing. Have fun with that. Stark realism – what I aim for, the feeling of ‘this could happen’ – that has its own conventions and constraints.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I’m posting a scene of Pride’s Children every Tuesday. This post was written after I figured out how I wanted to change my usual methods for the scenes which are the climax of Book 1 (19.3, 19.4, 20.1, and possibly a bit further). Tomorrow is 19.2, and next Tuesday 19.3 will be posted, and you can start seeing what I’m talking about in this post (which I figured out in the course of writing 19.3). This is one of the perils of posting work while you write further ahead.

      The biggest problem is that ‘Telling, not Showing’ has to be, in my mind, earned. And it is earned, among other things, by NOT doing it before – so that things feel different when you read. You are welcome to see how I write 19.3 next week, and the scenes following, but may not have enough background to know if I earned it.

      Does that make sense?

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Hi, Geraldine – thanks. I will. I am affected with logorrhea.

      When I figure something out and don’t think I’ve seen it quite that way before, I write it down (no in-brain storage).

      I’m sure it’s not an original idea – but the way I chose to use it, in this novel, is. And that makes me happy.

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  4. D. Wallace Peach

    As a rule breaker, I appreciate the permission. One of the challenges, for new writers in particular, is knowing the rules in the first place. My advice is somewhat counter intuitive as well: First learn the rules, then thoughtfully break them.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You move from newbie to pro when you learn that there is no one out there who can ‘give you permission.’ Even having an agent take you on is confirmation, not permission (if an agent is what you crave).

      It’s one of those zen mental tricks: you are when you think you are.

      I think you then become freer just because you said you were.

      Welcome!

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  5. Lily White LeFevre

    Makes very good sense!

    RE #12 i would say – whether this is a “break the rule” depends on how one defines who the “correct” character is, yes? “The one most affected” is also sometimes expressed as “the one in most pain.” By that measure the one telling a really awful story they keep locked insode might be the one in more pain than the listener. 😉

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Yup. But I decided who the pov character SHOULD be – and then deliberately picked the other one. You’ll tell me if it works if you read it. The concept was what surprised me, and, as I said, you can only try it if you think the reader can and will carry on.

      It tickled me to try.

      If it falls flat on its face, well, I can go back and pick the RIGHT pov character, and be no worse off. Chastised, but no worse off. Hey – we take risks just by writing!

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      1. Lily White LeFevre

        Ha ha, see here’s where you and I diverge, and I’m guessing it’s a result of your using dramatica to plot. My brain literally cannot accept the concept of a “right” or a “wrong” point of view for a particular scene. There is only the point of view which captures the effect you are after. This seems like you have a divergence of what your plotting structure dictates and the particular artistic effect you wish to achieve…which I can’t look at via the binary lens of right/not right but the multiplicity of effects a and b. I concede it’s an interesting challenge to write the character who has the more boring role in a scene (boring, for lack of a better word…since I think generally we choose a POV based on which character has the most interesting thing happening to them in the scene, with occasional deviations in order to obfuscate things from the reader).

        19.3. I will try to remember that one. Hopefully I don’t even notice, which would mean – it worked!

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Exactly. It won’t be posted for a month. If you remember, I’d be interested in whether it was transparent.

          The writer can do things – each one is a risk that readers will balk. The deeper a reader gets into a novel, if he or she still likes the character(s), the more you can sneak in a little something different.

          In any case, I had no choice: I just paid attention when my brain said, ‘Okay, this one we’re going to do a little differently.’ and went off on its own. I don’t have a lot of control.

          Dramatica doesn’t choose any of the pov decisions; that’s all me as I figured out what went where. I’ve come to a workable compromise with it: Kary is Main Character, Andrew is Obstacle Character, and I let Bianca take liberties with the Objective Storyline. I ran it past some Dramatica honchos, and they said it worked for them.

          It is interesting to write with constraints, even though I assigned all the meanings and all the locations myself. I like what it does – I’m lucky to have found a method of plotting that makes me happy. Every writer has to end up at that place, even if the method is ‘sit down and start.’

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