Thursday, April 14, 2011

Showing and Telling: How to Create Active Narratives

Not all of us are novelists, but I can guarantee that we are all story-tellers.  We both experience our world and communicate our experiences through narrative.  When someone asks what you did yesterday, she is asking for a narrative that you're likely to provide: I woke up, went for a run, did laundry and wrote all afternoon.

Most fiction, novels, short stories, etc, come in narrative form, but not all narratives are created equal.  The above example is a very simple narrative, but it is also a very boring narrative.  While it is completely reasonable to share these types of simple narratives to convey information, when it comes to fiction there is a huge difference between telling a story and showing a story.  Below are some tips (many of which I've learned while reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) to help you create more active narratives in your creative writing.

Show the story

So what does "showing a story" even mean? Simply enough, showing a story allows the reader to experience the narrative first-hand.  This is really the beauty of fiction.  The best fiction transports the reader into another world. Telling a story often takes place in the form of a second-hand report. Showing the story is presenting the narrative in an immediate scene.

What constitutes a scene?

There are three basic elements of active scenes.

  • A scene takes place in real time. This principle is simple enough.  When a scene in a novel takes place in real time the reader is more able to relate and place herself within that moment of time.  
  • Scenes usually have specific settings.  It is difficult to visualize and feel transported into a scene when the setting is vague.  You don't have to give ever detail of the room; most readers will understand the difference of atmosphere between a church and a strip club.
  • Scenes contain some action. Not all scenes have to be an action movie, but even the simplest conversations between two people will have some physical action. Body language is essential in daily communication, and readers will pick up those same physical cues on paper.  
Creating active scenes is a lot more difficult that relaying a simple second-hand narrative summary, but I guarantee that these active scenes will make all the difference.  Active scenes provide your writing with a sense of immediacy and of transparency.  Your reader should forget that he is reading a novel and feel present in the action.  Even if your novel is one that requires exposition, such as historical or science fiction, you can find ways through active scenes, through dialogue and action between characters, to convey the information your readers need without lecturing to them.  

One last thing...

Resist the urge to explain, but keep narrative summary in your toolbox.  You don't have to throw out all narrative summary.  A novel made up of a series of five minute scenes would feel unnatural and fail at drawing the reader into the story.  As a writer you probably already use a variety of active and second-hand narratives, but it is a good idea to make sure that at the end of the day, showing outweighs telling. 

Need more help editing your novel or short story? Click here! 

Images thanks to churl from

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