Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thoughts on Chapter 2 of "Writing Fiction" by Janet Burroway...

     Burroway's Chapter 2 is about "Showing and Telling," in writing...something we (as writers) harp on about a lot, but don't pay heed to when we write.  I'll be the first one to admit I'm guilty of over ponderous narrative devoid of great descriptions, littered with adverbs and overwritten with dreaded passive voice.

     JB (Janet Burroway) writes on page 21 that "Fiction tries to reproduce the emotional impact of experience."  This may seem counter-intuitive to the word 'fiction' itself, but the writer is not trying to reproduce exact emotions of a real experience, but seeking to reproduce emotions that most people would feel if a similar event occurred in their life. Loss of a loved one.  A plummet into poverty after living a life of luxury.  The enormous good fortune of finding buried treasure. Or the horrific experience of being buried alive.

   The reader needs to FEEL as if s/he is actually there, going through each experience, feeling what the character feels physically, mentally and emotionally if not spiritually.  When a writer helps a reader do that, then the author places an important ingredient into the story needed for a successful novel.

    JB talks about how the writer must include significant details in prose. She writes, "A detail is 'definite' and 'concrete' when it appeals to the senses. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched" (p. 22). But she goes on to explain that not just any sensory detail is useful. The details must matter to the story.

    As I examine my own writing, I find I'm fairly good at surrounding descriptions, and including sensory details, but in my story, "The Flatulent Adventures of Dr Stench and the DC Underground," my individual characters need more description and detail.  They are odd, and a bit abstract and I need to describe them more to the reader so the reader can learn to know and love them as I do. The characters should feel real to the reader, not just in their emotions but how they look, move and speak.

    Another technique JB mentions is to avoid the passive voice in writing. This was something I struggled with early in my writing, and it still comes back to haunt me from time to time when I lose focus or when I just start writing in a free flow narrative to get started.  I've worked to avoid several words like "had been," "was," "were," "should have been," "seemed like," "became," from my prose. I'm not always successful. The active voice makes reading interesting and puts the reader into the story instead of telling them about it.

    In addition to avoiding passive voice, JB warns against overuse of the dreaded "ly" words.  Overuse of adverbs make a manuscript monotonous and lifeless, and I've struggled 'fervently' against using numerous adverbs.  In older novels (1950's-1980's), I find it interesting to read the liberal use of adverbs in the prose, and I guess it is either a sign of our times that we work to avoid them, or it is just (simply) better writing.  One thing I know for certain is the SOUND or rhythm of prose is much better without an excess of the cumbersome words.

    Some writers take "showing versus telling" to mean that there should be less narrative, and more dialogue. I don't think this is true. I think there is an art to writing narrative. The art of it is the construction, and how the story is woven to make it interesting to the reader. The narrative needs to involve the reader in sensory details, and in emotion, and this can be done without excessive dialogue.  As I  read through several manuscripts, I wonder sometimes if dialogue is used as a crutch for some writers who fear boring their readers with narrative.  I also wonder if editors would rather a writer who lacks the technique of developing interesting narrative, to resort to dialogue to keep the reader intrigued.

    After reading JB's Chapter 2, I plan to go back and look at my novel and rework it where I recognize changes are needed. Showing, instead of telling, can be tricky at times and I need to be sure I understand the difference.


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