Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Powerful Exercise in the True Effects of Show

Sadly, it seems not many people understand the full range of effects of show, or how show might be used for different purposes.

Here is an exercise that is harder than it looks but if you understand it and can eventually do what the exercise asks your fiction will leap forward.

First you need to understand a few things; things like "The Pathetic Fallacy", how colour and focus can work in film, how music effects the perception of film scenes.

Apologies to those who already know these things...

TPF is that thing where, when you've just been dumped or lost someone, the weather, like God, "turns on you". It doesn't, of course, which is why it's called a fallacy, but you presumably know the feeling. It's to do with your current state of mind and how you filter the reality of the moment.

You've had your "Dear John" of COURSE it rains, of COURSE you scratch the car

Film is easy to understand. Maybe a back-story from 20 years ago will be shot in B&W or Sepia and be "soft-focus". Music is carefully chosen to match scenes and enhance them - and it would be farcical if the music was "wrong" for the associated action. The Birdie Song at a funeral or during a creepy horror scene for example.

OK, so how can all the above be used to strengthen and deepen rose on the page?

Imagine a scene. Imagine you're a camera floating in. It's a farmhouse, the yard outside, mud or concrete in a courtyard, the old barn, farm implements, maybe hay, maybe a few chickens pecking at the ground.

If this was a US scene, it's the ranch, the cookhouse, the bunkhouse.

Now a door opens and a man or woman (say they are 40-70 years old, your choice) and he (or she) ie either "just walking" (what's the weather like?) or is going to do some menial tasks, clean, check the horses, whatever...

The thing YOU know, (but the reader doesn't), is in the person's pocket is an email or a letter or a telegram (or s/he has just received a telephone call) and the news, whether good or bad was life-changing.

Maybe the man has just had his cancer confirmed. He has a month to live.

Maybe the man has received the all-clear and has decades of good health ahead of him

Maybe the letter says his wife is going to die.

Maybe it says she ISN'T

Or his long-lost, presumed dead son (or daughter) has been found alive and well... maybe his son has just been elected President. Maybe his son has just been sentenced to death or killed in an auto accident.

The point is, how s/he now sees the world is COLOURED by the contents of the news and his or her current state of mind.

Now here is the exercise.

Can you write the scene, and

WITHOUT MENTIONING THE LETTER's CONTENTS and WITHOUT mentioning his/her state of mind, make us FEEL his mind?

That is, can you think of "great joy and relief" but NOT write about it and yet make me feel it?

If you try this it's very easy to cheat. If you're thinking he's dying you sprinkle the text with "death-words" black, dark, decay etc. But can you do it more subtley?

Can you understand that this "mundane" listing of chores which might be (superficially) seen as "TELL", if it somehow sidles into the reader to create a mood, a mode-of-acceptance, is, in fact brilliant show?

Now, presume the writer has done this well. Without realising it, without quite knowing what or how or why, the reader has been "set up", put into a certain state so that WHAT COMES NEXT "fits".

Say you wanted to create a sombre mood of tragic loss (and yet he's just gone for firewood, that's all)... now when he returns to the farmhouse, the ranch-house, when he wakes his wife, or uses the phone, or re-reads the letter WE ALREADY "KNOW" the meaning (but not the specifics) of the letter.

That is, using show well, we can "build-in" to a description the SENSE, the smell, the tone of what is shortly to come. To us the telegram is still a mystery but the man already knows its contents

If we have described the setting and his actions correctly, the reader feels his pain or joy.

So, here are some pictures. 

Use one, some or all to "imagine" your scene. It's early morning or late in the afternoon. S/he has just got some news...

Don't just imagine in some vague way. 

Write the telegram or the contents of the letter (as if it was real). 

Print it, put it on the desk or stick it to your screen.

Now DON'T write about the letter AT ALL. 

Write NOT about it. 

Avoid cheap shot tricks. 

Make me feel that pain through the colour of the yard, the weight of the weather, how he does whatever he does.

If the letter is horrible, death comes or has just come, will I sense it?

If the letter is BRILLIANT, full of joy and hope, will I feel it?

Lastly, if the writer does this well, when "we" read the letter we believe it utterly. 

If the writer fails to do it well, the letter feels far less real.

It's essential for the exercise that you actually write a separate letter/telegram and you DON'T mention the contents crudely or in a cheat way.

Can you do it?

Do you trust that your description of his movements, actions, tasks to do; the way he sees things, how the weather is described, will make us feel a certain way so the news, once delivered makes perfect sense?

That's SHOW.

It's show BEHIND the words, echoing, shadowy, and extremely powerful.

Here are the pictures,


Anonymous said...

Wow, Alex. This is a hugely challenging exercise.

I'll try. Expect my modest attempt in three years!

Seriously now, may I change the facts to something that is more directly relevant to my novel, or is it important to do this exact exercise?

Jim H. said...

Brilliant exercise.

First off, though: not all us Yanks live around ranches and bunkhouses and such. Of course, I know you know that. Just sayin'.

This exercise reminds me of one from John Gardner's excellent "The Art of Fiction" (@ p. 37):

"Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death. Do not mention the man who does the seeing. ... the result of [the] work should be a powerful and disturbing image, a faithful description of some apparently real barn but one from which the reader gets a sense of the father's emotion; though exactly what that emotion is he may not be able to pin down. ... If the description is to be effective, he must choose his boards, straw, pigeon manure, and ropes, the rhythms of his sentences, his angle of vision, by feeling and intuition. And one of the things he will discover, inevitably, is that the images of death and loss that come to him are not necessarily those we might expect. The hack mind leaps instantly to images of, for instance, darkness, heaviness, decay. But those may not be at all the kinds of images that drift into the mind that has emptied itself of all but the desire 'to tell the truth'; that is, to get the feeling down in concrete details."

Your exercise focuses on the man from a third person close or omniscient POV. Gardner's asks us to use either first person or, stretching it a bit, free indirect style.

Enjoying the site!

Alex Keegan said...


Dammit. I must've stolen it.

Read Gardner a few times centuries back. I have obviously pinched it, but not consciously.