We’ve now looked at the role of internal voice, dialogue and actions in helping your reader to engage with your story. Now let’s go back to our mate John and demonstrate how all three principles can be used in a short scene.
The fundamental concept of the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology is that a writer must keep back-story and plot out of the narration. As I have driven home, including back-story in narration leaves the reader on the back foot and quickly results in them becoming bored. Show, Don’t Tell solves this problem by forcing the reader to ‘lean into’ the book and work for the plot. This produces interest, keeps the reader active and sucks them into the book.
By not using narration to pass back-story, the writer is forced to look to other methods to tell the story. This is where characterization comes into play. As discussed a writer has three aspects to any character:
- Their internal voice.
- Their external voice.
- Their actions.
The internal voice is the writer’s secret weapon and is the way the character thinks about the world. The external voice is the character’s conversation and can be used to pass back-story and plot. Finally, the way a character reacts to any given situation provides a subtle, though powerful, method to providing reader’s with clues about the character’s back-story.
The use of internal voice, external voice and actions is often called characterization.
There is one final aspect of characterization we are yet to address. You will often hear readers talking about ‘three dimensional characters’. This is one of those terms that has no real, definable meaning. Readers (and reviewers) who talk about ‘three dimensional characters’ will often mean characters that are realistic or true to life. The problem you face is that you are telling a story, not writing a documentary. By their very nature characters in a novel are not real people. The goal of a novel is to stimulate emotion in readers and to tap into some deeper truth. This is done with characters that mimic the real word in a way that tricks the reader’s brain into believing they are real.
Luckily, you can use the characterization methodology set out in this book to create ‘realistic’ characters.
How often have you heard a person say one thing, but then act in a completely different way?
Or, how often have you heard a person say something; believe it fully, but then act in a way that contradicts?
Or how often have you said one thing, believed it to be true and then found yourself acting in a way that contradicts your earlier statement?
The simple answer is that people often say and act in ways that are opposed. That’s what makes people, people.
This is also what makes your character three-dimensional! It means that if you are going to create realistic characters they need to think, speak and act in ways that is, at times, contradictory.
The good news (actually it is brilliant news) is that you already have the tool sin place to do this with little additional effort. You are going to use your character’s back-story to create situations in which your characters react in a unexpected, though logical (if only to you) manner.
Let’s go back to John for an example:
John walked into the cramped three-bedroom house carrying a large cardboard box with a massive pink ribbon bowed at the top. He found his sister leaning on the doorframe of the open back door, the final drags of a cigarette in her hand. When she saw John, she flicked the cigarette butt into the garden, and then turned to him, her face beaming with a smile.
“John. Is that for me?’ she said nodding at the box. John smiled back, pushing the box onto the kitchen table, its awkward weight evident.
“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you?” John looked about in an exaggerated motion before leaning in and kissing his sister on the cheek.
“You’d better open it quick, its not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”
She danced from foot-to-foot as she tugged at the pink ribbon. As soon as the ribbon fell away the box lid forced its own way open with an explosion of black fur, ears, eyes and nose. John’s sister scooped up the dog.
‘A puppy. I love him.’
So John’s bought his sister a dog! Really? What’s going on! We know John hates dogs, so this makes no sense. John’s acting irrationally.
Or is he?
Well… It is all a matter of viewpoint.
Remember, this is an example of characterization. The point here is that people do strange things. They often think/say one thing and do another. People do things that make no sense, it is what makes people, people. It is what will make your characters interesting and three-dimensional.
It is OK, in fact, desirable, that your characters do things that make no sense to the reader. That’s the point. Though characters do things that make no sense to the reader, they should make perfect sense to the writer. A character should surprise a reader, but they must never surprise the writer.
So here’s a little secret about John and his sister, which you, the reader, don’t, because me, the writer, haven’t told you…
When they were younger, John’s sister had always wanted a dog, but because of John’s fear it was never an option for the family. Fast forward. John’s sister has just bought her first house and is setting up a new home. John had always felt guilty about the whole dog thing and now seemed the perfect time to make amends. John hates dogs, but he loves his sister more.
This is actually back-story. It was part of the character profile created for John. It therefore influences John’s internal voice. John has two elements to his back-story that are relevant to this scene:
- John hates dogs.
- John loves his sister.
So… whilst John may talk and act in a way that is influenced by his hatred of dogs, he ALSO talks and acts in a way that is influenced by his love for his sister. In this case John’s love trumps his hate.
The result is that John’s actions do make sense – to the writer. They, however, remain a mystery to the reader. The reader is forced to engage with John and build their own rationale for his actions.
John is three-dimensional.