We discovered in the last chapter that the biggest hurdle facing authors is creating books that readers want to read. We also discovered that the main reason readers stop reading is that they find books boring. Then we discovered that, if we write books that stimulate a reader’s emotions, the reader will keep reading.
In this chapter, we turn our attention to the simple technique we are going to use to keep readers enthralled in your book.
The first step is to delve a little more deeply into what a reader means when saying a book is boring.
The answer is pretty simple.
A boring book is one that a reader fails to find interesting. Let’s put that differently: a boring book is one in which the reader fails to engage.
The idea of engagement is essential, so I want to reinforce its meaning in this context.
Engagement is when a reader is emotionally invested in a book. Remember that feeling when you can’t wait to get back to a novel you are reading? Yeah? Well, that’s engagement. What about the feeling of shock when a character you love is killed off? We are all looking at you J.K. Well, you’ve guessed it; that’s also engagement.
Sorry, we are on the verge of jargon here, so let’s delve a little deeper before it all gets out of hand.
A reader that is engaged in your book is active.
A reader that is not engaged in your book (thinks it boring) is passive.
The best way to explain the concept of active reading is with an example.
Let’s say you are writing a novel about a petty criminal called John. As the main character of your book, John will have a detailed backstory. One of the key elements of this backstory is that John is scared of dogs. His fear of dogs will play an important part in the climax of the story and is, therefore, an important plot point.
The reader needs to know about John’s dog fear. The question is, how do you show the reader that John is scared of dogs?
You have two choices.
One will leave the reader actively engaged; the other will produce a passive, bored reader.
The first option (the easiest) is to dump the backstory via the narrator. This is the process of using the narrator to TELL the reader about the backstory.
You could write this into the first chapter of your book:
John had always been scared of dogs. Just the sound of a distant bark would put him in a cold sweat. His mother had always insisted this fear had sprung from an incident when he was just a baby. Apparently, a large black Labrador had jumped into John’s stroller, nipping his hand while snatching a melting ice cream. John wasn’t one for psychology. He just knew he hated dogs.
Seems OK, right?
As seen above, the narrator is TELLING the reader about John’s fear of dogs. You have now ticked the box entitled Tell reader John is scared of dogs, and you are free to write the more exciting scenes.
The problem is that this approach leaves the reader in a passive stance, simply sitting back, as the narrator spoon-feeds the key elements of the plot. The reader is not required to do any work and is just given the information. The reader doesn’t have to piece together any clues or interpret any actions or even read between the lines to see what a section of dialogue is really about. It is all there, no confusion.
Well, it may seem fine for this one example but imagine a whole book of this backstory dumping. Each time the author needs to TELL the reader about an important plot point, it is just dumped into the narrative, ticking off that box. This way each plot point and backstory element is spoon-fed to the reader, who sits back and lets it happen.
It quickly becomes, well … boring.
So, if we can’t dump the backstory, what’s the other option?
The second choice is to actively engage the reader. This requires more work, more skill, more thought, but the rewards are astounding. With this approach, the author doesn’t TELL the reader that John is scared of dogs; instead, the author SHOWS the reader by leaving clues. You must force the reader to work for the plot, sifting the story to find the plot elements that are important.
So what do you do?
Let’s go back to our mate John. If you remember, John’s fear of dogs is a major plot point, and we need to let the reader know. At first, there’s no need to write a new scene. Just begin by taking a scene from the start of the book and adding in a description of a passing dog. Nothing spectacular, just a dog on the street. Blink and you’ll miss it.
John, of course, sees the dog and reacts. You don’t write in any new dialogue, just a few lines of description where John sees the animal and crosses the street to avoid the dog. It is essential that the narrator describes the action but offers no explanation. The narrator must not TELL the reader why John is acting in the way described.
Now let’s jump forward.
Imagine there’s a scene, at a key point in the book, in which John, having just committed a crime, is running from the police. John knows a shortcut down an alley. He turns into the alley and sees a dog. John stops in his tracks, turns around and chooses to take a different route. He is nearly caught by the police in the process.
Again this is action only. The narrator must not TELL the reader why John is acting this way, just a description of his actions. Nothing is said about the dog, beyond a description of John’s actions. John sees the dog and reacts. It is up to the reader to draw his or her conclusions.
Finally, you write a new scene.
In this, John and his partner in crime are in a car. John sees a dog in the nearby park. He looks at the dog and shakes his head, muttering under his breath. His partner asks, “What is it with you and dogs?” And you are off … Now you can write a conversation (it must be via dialogue), in which John talks about his hatred of dogs. Perhaps he relates the ice-cream-in-the-stroller story; it is up to you. You already have the backstory in your head (as the author). How much of this you give to the reader is your choice.
What is essential is that the reader learns of John’s fear via conversation, NOT via the narrator.
What you are doing here is writing a scene in which you can present dialogue that passes the backstory in a convincing manner. John’s friend has seen John’s reaction to dogs; it would only be natural for it to pop into the conversation. This dialogue exchange then becomes a vehicle for you to present backstory.
I would like to go one step further.
It would be perfectly acceptable for you, the author, to never explain John’s fear of dogs to the reader. You could remove completely the conversation and just have John reacting to dogs. The important aspect is that you, the author, understand John’s fear and how he will react in any given situation.
Have you ever seen the Indiana Jones series of films? In these, Indy often encounters snakes. In Raiders of the Lost Ark there is even this exchange:
Indiana: There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!
Jock: Oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie.
Indiana: I hate snakes, Jock! I hate ’em!
Jock: Come on! Show a little backbone, will ya!
The viewer is never given a reason for Indy’s fear of snakes. Does the story’s creator, George Lucas, know the reason? Perhaps. Does it matter that the viewer is never told? Absolutely not.
Indy’s fear is just a tool to humanize the character and to help the viewer engage. As part of Indy’s backstory, it helps the screenwriter and the creator to predict how Indy will react in a situation that involves snakes.
The only thing you must NOT do is have the narrator explain the backstory via narrative summary.
Wow, that’s an important little statement.
For all of this to work, you are relying on one trick of the brain.
In day-to-day life we see people acting and hear people speaking, but we have no explanation for their reasons or motivations. Our brain has become very good at seeing meaning in words and actions. At the most basic level, if a man looks angry, is carrying a big stick, running toward us, shouting, “Die,” then our brain must work out what is going on pretty fast.
This means that, whenever your brain sees an event or hears words of conversation, it will automatically try to work out the meaning behind those words and actions. This is where the magic happens. It is this action of the brain that you, as an author, are trying to harness.
If you can write events in which people act convincingly but don’t explain why your reader’s brain will do the rest and add in a meaning. The same goes for conversation. Your reader’s brain will naturally look for meaning between the lines.
So if you write truthfully (as in, true to the nature of people), your reader’s brain will see the deeper meaning. That’s why, when John runs from the dog, your reader’s brain is trying to work out why.
Another way to think of this is that you are trying to create a distance between the reader and the character.
By not explaining why John is scared of the dog, the reader is forced to fill in the blanks.
Perhaps the reader is also scared of dogs and overlays his fear. Even if the reader is not scared of dogs, we are all scared of something. Your brain recognizes fear when it sees it. There is something in all our lives that will, metaphorically, make us cross the street. After all, fear is the deepest of human emotions.
So … here’s the next level.
By forcing the reader to recognize fear and to look for that emotion in the reader’s memory banks, the author is triggering a deeper truth than could ever be expressed in words. The reader sees John’s fear and, at some level, experiences that fear.
The key point here is that, by altering the way you write, by moving away from narrative summary and toward words and actions, you are forcing the reader from a passive stance into an active stance. When you write in a way that creates a narrative space between the reader and the characters, the reader will lean in and engage with your book.
In the most simplistic terms:
- Narrative summary (dumping backstory) = TELL.
- Passing backstory via dialogue and actions = SHOW.
A word of warning here …
You are going to learn to use show, don’t tell in a way that moves far beyond anything taught in a creative writing class. Writing in this manner is more than a simple technique; it as writing methodology. In fact, “show, don’t tell” will become your mantra. The application of this one simple phrase is the key to unlocking your novel and creating active prose that sucks the reader into your story. You will find that by simply repeatedly asking, “Am I SHOWING or TELLING?” you will lift your novel to the highest possible level.
The trick is now to forget the theory and to learn the simple techniques that will allow you to build the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology into the very fabric of your writing. It’s this task that we will be addressing in the coming chapters.
To apply the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology to a novel, a wider application than seen above, you will need to focus on four key aspects:
- Narrative Summary.
Characterization will see you learning how to use backstory to determine how characters will react in any given situation. Dialogue will show you how to write conversation that creates a narrative space between the reader and your characters. Description will demonstrate the best way to describe events, and narrative summary will give you guidelines as to what you can and can’t have the narrator saying to the reader.