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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don't Show (or Tell) Us Everything, How I Start part 8

I gave three of my dictums yesterday in one post.  Don't confuse your readers.  Entertain your readers.  Ground your readers in the writing.  Today, I want to give you another one: don't show your readers everything.  People ask me all the time from my books, "What really happened to x." or "Did x do this to y." I try to not let my readers know anything more than the characters understand themselves. I don't like to explain anything. I want the interaction of the characters to show everything. I don't want my readers to predict what will happen in the story. I want them guessing all the time. Guessing as much as the characters are themselves. In the real world, people's motivations are ultimately unknown. People's thoughts are unknown. There are always mysteries. Most of which we simply ignore. You can always leave your readers hanging, but don't leave them confused. Make sure your writing is clear and you are getting across what you want. This is where good editing and lots of it can help you. Find as many readers as possible and beg them for feedback. Once the novel is published, it's just too late to fix it.  So what does it look like to not reveal everything?  Let me show you.  In Children of Light and Darkness, it is quite obvious from the beginning that Kathrin and James have a romantic and sexual relationship. At the beginning of the novel their relationship is estranged. We know this by the way they interact and speak to one another. Here is an example from the novel:

James stepped out on the veranda, “Heat still bothering you, Kathrin?”

Kathrin didn’t say a word. She pursed her lips and clenched her jaw.

James turned around at the rail and leaned against it. He was tall and handsome, clean shaven. His hair was slightly tousled—always slightly tousled. It was brown and nondescript. His face, though handsome was still nondescript. MI, Military Intelligence, liked their agents and operatives to look good, but not to draw too much attention. It was easier that way. James was strong and well trained. He always treated her like a lady, even when he didn’t have to and when she didn’t deserve it.

Kathrin knew she was pretty—perhaps bordering on beautiful. Her face was freckled and sported blazing green eyes. She had heart shaped lips in a heart shaped face. Her hair was red, and she was thin, perhaps too thin. She wasn’t very tall either. None of those characteristics ever seemed to affect her negatively. She spoke with a thick, but improving Scottish brogue that made her a little difficult to understand at times. She knew she always showed a slightly harried look, and that was backed by an overly brisk personality. She did have a raging temper. It was a prideful secret that she kept it in check almost all of the time. When she let it out, it scared her. She didn’t let it out often, not at all since she had been working for the organization.

James checked his sidearm, “You still mad at me about last night?”

Kathrin’s eyes flashed at him. James tucked away his weapon and raised his hands.

All the fight drained out of her. She looked out on the jungle, “It was my fault.”

“Then come on. It will only get hotter the longer we delay.”

... After dinner, they took a nightcap with them to their room. James made a short foray to the veranda and smoked a cigar. Kathrin rearranged the fresh flowers in an old silver pot on her nightstand. For a while, through their window, she watched James as he scouted out the edge of the jungle. Kathrin undressed in the small bathroom. She wore as little as possible to bed. If she were by herself, she would have gone to bed naked. She hadn’t done that with James for weeks—well, except last night. He wore his briefs. That wasn’t an accommodation for her, it was service policy. Funny, the rules that governed spies. She hadn’t let him touch her for a long time. He hadn’t tried for a long time. She was a little ashamed at herself for getting involved with him that way. They weren’t married, and she almost felt like an old married woman.

Here, in this example, the characters show no outward affection for one another. You don't know anything directly about their relationship, but you know quite a lot. You know they are sharing a room, you guess that something happened the night before. I never tell you what happened--I leave it to your imagination, but you know something happened. I could have described everything in its gory glory. I could tell you what they think about each other--I never do. I show you what is going on and leave the rest to your imagination. This is the power of showing and not telling. It is also the power of not letting your readers know everything. The characters and their descriptions build themselves within the context of the novel.  So in building your scenes--aim to entertain, but plan not to let your readers know everything.  That keeps them looking for more.

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