Ray Bradbury once said that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.
Everyone accepts that nonfiction books can be very influential, but does fiction ever change the world? Well, I think it can—by changing awareness or attitudes. Usually, when it happens, that was the author’s intent. I believe Charles Dickens hoped to improve the lot of London’s poor by presenting their plight to the readers of his Victorian tales—such familiar works as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly intended to influence attitudes towards slavery during the period leading up to the American Civil War. It’s generally credited with having some impact. (It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, although it’s now often derided for its sentimentality and its stereotypes.) Other influences were not intentional: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have probably influenced the development of forensic science, although Doyle had no such intention.
Even if a book doesn’t change the world, it may still change someone’s life. Most writers of fiction are working from a desire to entertain – or, in a mundane sense, to sell books to readers. Readers simply won’t buy books if they aren’t entertained by them. Writers may also be driven by an urge to create, the need to respond to their innate desire to tell a story. But what makes a book entertaining? What makes a story a good story? I think ultimately it is the human element. The writer takes a character and puts him or her in a situation, and then proceeds to describe the consequences of what the character does. The up-shot may not be earthshaking, but it must at least ring true. For any given person reading that story, the truth it contains may resonate in a special way – a meaningful or a helpful way. That may not be why writers write, or why readers read; it’s just an inescapable byproduct of the whole activity. And once in a while a work of fiction may just capture the mind of a generation and take it somewhere it otherwise would not have gone.
Well, maybe that’s going a little far. But I don’t think fiction writers should be put down for engaging in a “trivial” activity. I don’t think they should sell themselves short. After all, you just never know.
What do you think? Ever want to change the world? Can you think of a fiction work that has done that? Is there one that has changed you?
If you write fiction, sooner or later you,re going to have to deal with backstory. Backstory is all the past history of the characters, setting, and situation that happened before the story begins. While writers may imagine more backstory details they actually use, they’re going to have to convey enough of the details to allow the reader to understand the story, the character’s motivations, etc. Since backstory is in the past, by definition, relative to the story action, it’s pretty hard to deal with—correctly, at least—without using the past perfect tense. On the other hand, long explanatory paragraphs in past perfect are just the kind of thing that gives this verb tense a bad name, because of all those had’s.
Long paragraphs of backstory are often called “info-dumps,” and widely considered to be no-no’s. The truth, however, is that long paragraphs of any kind can be a problem, and an info-dump—to my way of thinking—is any delivery of backstory that is intrusive or awkward or badly-done. “Work it into the story” is a common suggestion for avoiding info-dumps, but I’ve seen that done badly, too, with bits of backstory inserted seemingly at random with too little continuity and very little relation to the specific context in the story where they are placed. Backstory delivery should be on a need-to-know basis.
If you’re setting up a fantasy world, an alien planet, a future setting, etc, your readers need to know a lot up front. You may need some fairly concentrated chunks of backstory and you shouldn’t shrink from the use of a few had’s. Don’t overload your readers with too much information, of course, but don’t starve them either.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to keep your need for “had” to a minimum. You should just try to do it legally. And if you bend the rules, never sacrifice clarity.
Here are some things to remember:
Habitual actions don’t require the past perfect tense, as long as they are continuing habits. The same applies to statements of the status quo. They cover the past and the present.
John always took a walk in the park on Sunday afternoons. (He did then, and still does.)
The anti-blasphemy laws infiltrated every aspect of people’s lives and were rigorously enforced. (This is the current state of affairs and has presumably been going on for some time.)
In a sentence with a compound past perfect verb, you only need to use “had” once:
The effects of the potion had confused her. She had lost her way and wandered into the magician’s trap. (Only two had’s, not three.)
Also, use of phrases in the progressive tense or the infinitive can dilute the past perfect:
The effects of the potion had confused her, causing her to lose her way and wander into the magician’s trap. (Only one had.)
Past events referred to in dialog use the simple past tense:
“Remember, I went all the way to the other end of the earth to get that thing.” “Yes, and you nearly got killed half a dozen times along the way. First there were the hostile natives who ambushed you. Then a leopard pounced out of a tree…” (etc.)
But beware of the “dialog info-dump.” You’ve all seen or heard these, where a character starts spewing details that would be common knowledge to all the other characters present and that no one would actually say. This feels completely unnatural and is very distracting.
If you really want to ditch the past perfect, do make liberal use of time tags to ensure clarity:
A century ago, that just wasn’t how things were done. Divorce carried a significant stigma at that time, which explained why Joshua remained in his loveless marriage to Anna and why the daughter Suzette bore to him grew up without knowing who her father was. (I would probably go to past perfect in the next sentence, unless I could work in another time tag.)
Breaking up a stretch of backstory by intercutting it with current action can work very well—if carefully done. Typically, a character is reminiscing about the past while passively watching some event or engaging in some simple, straightforward activity. The main pitfall comes from failing to be scrupulously clear about which bits are present and which bits are past. This is not the place to scrimp on past perfect or on time tags. Place and season and other diagnostic details can also help clue the reader as to what is ongoing action and what is backstory.
Rigo watched the muster of the troops from the balcony of the Winter Palace in Orman. There were too few of them and they moved stiffly, their uniforms inadequate against the cold. Many of them were also feeling the stiffness of old wounds. As he watched, Rigo couldn’t help remembering a different muster, in a different place and time. It had been spring then in Astergard, a hopeful season, and there had been many more men marching to the drums with a spring in their step. They had thought they were going out to put down a little rebellion—they’d be back in a week. That had been two years ago, before the death of the king, the fall of the capital city, and the overrunning of half the kingdom by “rebels” who had turned out to be the magically-conjured minions of the mysterious Mage-Lord. On the balcony, Rigo shivered as snow began to fall. Below him, the young prince—far too young, too green—rode out to review his troops. (You get the idea. I could go on, making up more details of the present situation and more details of its history, and alternating them.)
One thing not to do, is to put the first couple of sentences in past perfect and then lapse back into simple past without using clarifying time tags. You may know what you mean, but readers can easily be confused, especially early in the story when they don’t know enough to make accurate guesses. Ideally, readers should never have to guess at things you intend them to understand.
Has this been useful? Do you have tips of your own to offer? I’d be glad to hear them.
Do you ever walk away from your car in a parking lot, then stop and go back to check because you can’t remember locking it—only to find that you evidently had? Do you ever do something and wonder why you did it? Have you ever agonized over some problem for hours and finally given up, only to have the answer come to you some time later out of the blue while you’re doing something else entirely? Or, if you’re a writer, would you swear that your mind works on your story behind your back or while you’re asleep? All of these are examples of your unconscious mind in action.
Some recent events have motivated me to look into what is known about the subconscious mind. Among other things, this involved using PubMed, the search engine of the National Library of Medicine, to look for relevant published papers on the subject. The first thing I learned there is that the term “unconscious” seems to be what is used in academic discussions, not “subconscious,” so that’s what I’m going to use here.
It seems the unconscious mind is credited with a large measure of our creativity, especially when it comes to certain kinds of problem-solving. And it definitely works behind your conscious back, and while you’re asleep. I’ve actually seen it recommended that people put their work aside, after first examining all the relevant data, and go do something completely unrelated—even something frivolous—to give their unconscious mind time to work on the problem.
Of course you never know what your unconscious mind is up to—by definition—because it is unconscious. And I’m sure this explains why writers sometime feel they are “channeling” their characters, or that the world they’ve invented must actually exist somewhere. It probably also explains the Greeks’ invention of the Muses. It was their way of dealing with the sense that creative inspiration came to them from somewhere outside of their conscious selves.
And there’s more—and this is where it really gets freaky. Your unconscious mind is fully capable of initiating and carrying out actions using your body without any conscious input. In fact, this is apparently one of its principle functions—and not one it shares with your conscious mind. Yes, that’s right: Your conscious mind is not actually in charge of moment-to-moment decisions and actions, it only thinks it is. Research shows that the preparation in your brain to take action precedes your conscious awareness of having decided to act—by about 300-400 milliseconds. The decision, therefore, must have been made unconsciously.
But how can that be? (you protest) That’s not how it feels!
Ah, yes, I know. But what about those things you find yourself doing “automatically,” or without thinking about it. Mostly they’re pretty basic, routine things—the unconscious excels at those. But every once in a while, don’t you do something really inexplicable and find yourself asking, “Now why on earth did I do that?” I know I do.
Here’s the deal: Your conscious mind may not be in charge, but it does have influence. For one thing, it has veto power over unconscious decisions, which it can exercise in the split-second window (150-200 milliseconds) between becoming aware of the decision and the action actually being carried out. In other words, “will power” is actually “won’t power.” (No, I won’t say that word, pull that trigger, take that second chocolate chip cookie…) And your conscious mind also indirectly influences the choices your unconscious makes by imagining simulations of possible outcomes—good or bad—to hypothetical actions. That, in fact, is apparently one of its main functions. Unlike the unconscious mind, which “lives” in the moment, the conscious mind can remember the past in order to learn its lessons, or imagine the future to suggest things that might come to pass. Which means that your conscious self has the opportunity to persuade your unconscious. Most of the time, if the advantages and disadvantages are pretty obvious, your unconscious is probably going to be pretty much of a pushover.
Suppose you look in the refrigerator, see the empty shelf, and think, “Gee, if I don’t go to the store there won’t be any milk for my cereal in the morning.” If, shortly thereafter, you grab the car keys and drive to the grocery store to buy milk, you may be forgiven for assuming that you consciously made the decision to make that shopping trip.
To get back to the matter of writing, it seems to me that this function of exploring possibilities by spinning hypothetical scenarios makes your conscious mind a natural born story-teller. Your unconscious mind? Not so much, despite its vaunted creativity. Which, in turn, means that writing is of necessity a collaborative venture between your two minds. There’s another reason for this as well: Your unconscious can only process one word at a time (according to my sources). Handling language at the level of sentences is another primary function of the conscious mind—possibly why it evolved in the first place.
So if you’re stuck on some aspect of your story, it may mean that your conscious mind needs to take a break to let your unconscious work on the problem. And if you’re having trouble getting yourself to put your butt in the chair, it may mean your conscious mind needs to be a little more persuasive…
That’s more than enough.
Thoughts anyone? Got any good stories about things your unconscious mind has done to you? Or is this just another load of manure?
I have a confession to make. There are situations where the rules seem to call for the past perfect but I actually find that I substitute the simple past and it doesn’t feel wrong to me. I know; shocking, isn’t it? I guess Miss Past Perfect (me) isn’t quite so perfect.
I got to wondering whether this was a deficiency in my usually natural ability to “feel” the need for past perfect, or whether these are places where other grammatically knowledgeable writers would make the same call. Was there a pattern? I set out to analyze some of these cases.
Some of them turned out to be examples of a situation I’ve already claimed was legitimate, though I’m not sure it is.
In these cases, I wasn’t really using the simple past tense, I was using the past participle without the helping verb “had.” The simple past and the past participle are identical for many English verbs, so it isn’t always obvious what’s going on in these cases. Basically, they occur when a sentence has two or more parallel verbs all in past perfect. It only feels necessary to me to use the helping verb once – with the first past participle. The others feel okay to me without it, like this:
She had gone to the window, looked outside, and seen no one.
Note that “looked” and “seen” are both past participles here, although “looked” is identical to the simple past tense of “look.” Would anyone really feel it necessary to write “had gone,” “had looked,” and “had seen” in this case? Is what I do legitimate, or not?
And what about this:
He had been in a terrible mood because the repairman arrived two hours late.
I used that example in an earlier post, but wrote “had arrived” in order to make a point, even though I didn’t feel the “had” was really necessary. This is a different situation. “Arrived,” here, is not a past participle.
Or, another example, also a variant on one I used in a previous post:
He had finished it just two days before he died.
I wrote, “just two days before his death,” in the post to avoid the issue, but I like the ring of the above version better – and also better than “He had finished it just two days before he had died.” And once again, I’m not using “died” as a past participle. I might say “he had finished it two days before he went,” but never “he had finished it two days before he gone.”
What’s going on with these last two cases? All I can say in my defense is that both examples involve the second verb in a sentence where the first verb has clearly placed the action in the past relative to the ongoing action by use of the past perfect. In both cases there is no reasonable ambiguity. The word “because” in the first instance makes it impossible to imagine that the repairman being late could be present action, since it was the cause of a past situation (the character’s terrible mood). The second example may not be quite so clear-cut, but for me it would take a break in the sentence to wrench that second verb into the ongoing action – like this:
He had finished it just two days before. At a little before noon, the old man died.
And finally, here’s another example from a previous post. This is how I originally wrote it:
It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when he had noticed the trees and the flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.
The truth is, though, I haven’t really got a problem with switching the first verb in the second sentence to simple past:
It hadn’t always been that way. There was a time when he had noticed the trees and the flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.
What can I say? There’s a past perfect verb in that second sentence that anchors the sentence in time. The past perfect verb in the preceding sentence reinforces that and leads the reader to anticipate some further explanation of the past situation. So, again, I don’t think there’s any risk of ambiguity. (I might switch the second verb in that sentence instead, but not both at once.)
Am I just being hypocritical to allow myself these reversions to the simple past while demanding that the past perfect be used to anchor both sentences? You can tell me what you think, but for me, switching that entire last passage to simple past suggests a different meaning:
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when he noticed the trees and the flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.
Now I think it’s possible that the “time when” referred to might be every Saturday afternoon when he walks to the park, rather than some earlier period of his life.
So what do you think? Should I be hung, drawn, and quartered? What would you do in these instances? Do you have other situations where you break the rules and feel okay about it? If so, tell me why.
When it’s an icon.
I just had (another) negative icon experience in Microsoft Word. At such times, when my ire is at its height, I tend to go off into long rants to the effect that the present proliferation of icons is threatening to return our civilization to the Stone Age, or at least to a time in history before the invention of writing — which I consider to be one of humankind’s greatest achievements. On this particular occasion, however, I was brought around to a slightly more balanced position by a serious conversation with my Millennial-generation son.
My son pointed out that he had grown up with icons and more or less takes them for granted. Some of them are pretty widely recognized and are used across different platforms. He also observed that they are not likely to go away any time soon. As he said, they have their place.
Yes, they do. They save space on the small screens of many electronic devices where it would be totally impractical to spell everything out in writing. They are not tied to a specific language, and so can potentially be more “universal” than written labels. On the other hand, this potential is limited by the fact that images have cultural context too. In fact, it’s pretty hard to come up with a universally understood icon.
Some of the better icons are: The arrow, used to denote direction. This one probably goes back to the Stone Age. It’s practically a dinosaur. Since bows and arrows are not commonplace anymore, however, its meaning has become culturally determined to a large extent. The skull and cross-bones, used to indicate a poison or other potentially deadly threat. It’s pretty hard to argue with this one, although I once read about a tribe somewhere that keeps the bones of ancestors lying around their houses. Skulls might have a rather different meaning to them. The no (whatever) allowed symbol, by which I mean the red circle with the slanting line across it, superimposed on an image of whatever is meant to be disallowed. The meaning here derives from the fairly universal destructive gesture of crossing something out. Of course, the full meaning is dependent on the iconic quality of the picture of whatever is behind it. The scissors to stand for the word “cut.” This is by far the clearest icon image to have come out of the computer age. The trouble with it is, you still have to know what “cut” means in the digital context, so it is language-dependent.
Maybe you can think of more or better examples.
Here’s the thing about images and icons: Not every image makes a good icon. To be good for this, the image has to be, well, iconic. That is, it needs to be visually simple, memorable, and endowed with relatively unambiguous meaning. I’ll say it again. A good icon must be: 1. visually simple 2. memorable 3. endowed with relatively unambiguous meaning
That’s a tall order. Not very many images can live up to it, and an awful lot of the icons that are strewn willy-nilly across our computer screens fall woefully short. My son and I concluded that icons work best when they are widely used over long periods of time so that they come to have general instant recognition. We agreed that the practice of concocting novel icons to represent specialized functions in specific software applications is just plain wrong-headed. They have no generally-accepted meaning, and users expend effort to memorize them only to frequently have them disappear in the next incarnation of the program. They’re particularly useless when they aren’t even good icons based on the three criteria stated above – and most of them aren’t.
So this is for whoever it was at Microsoft who decided to substitute a totally un-memorable and not very descriptive icon for the “new style” button in Microsoft Word: You know who you are and you blew it! You failed the useful new icon creation test. (Cue sound of rude, annoying buzzer.)
So what do you think? Are there any icons you have come to know and love? Any you think should be relegated to icon hell?
(Take heed, oh ye Microsoft designers and programmers.)
Time is an important dimension in any story, and verb tenses are a major tool by which writers assert control over the dimension of time in their storytelling. If you’re a writer, I believe you owe it to yourself to master the verb tenses, regardless of the approach you take to telling your story. It’s part of what it means to be skilled in the craft.
When I see problems with verb tense in the work of aspiring or self-published writers, by far the most frequent issues involve the past perfect tense, specifically the failure to use it when it’s called for. People try to make the simple past do the work of both past and past perfect. The result is a noticeable loss of temporal “depth” and sometimes a loss of clarity. It’s like looking at a photograph where some things are out of focus that aren’t meant to be, making it hard to distinguish the relationships between objects.
Most stories are told in the past tense. They use the simple past for ongoing action, so the past perfect is needed to set off events that occurred prior to the current action. Many people aren’t very comfortable with the past perfect, and if you know you’re one of them, this post is for you.
This time I’d like to explain one very common use for the past perfect in a past tense narrative: filling in gaps created by jumping from one scene to another.
When you’re telling a story—anything other than a very simple one—you can’t show everything that happens because there just isn’t room. You have to decide which actions and events to put into scenes and which to skip over, but skipping creates gaps that can be informational as well as temporal. How do you fill the reader in on events that matter for continuity but are too minor, too brief, too boring, or just too isolated in time to justify fleshing-out in a scene? The past perfect tense is perfect for this, especially if you like to make “clean” jumps between scenes instead of linking them through brief passages of narration.
Let’s say the last scene involved the hero’s escape from some adversaries while crossing a plain to reach a range of mountains he has to climb. The next scene skips to him being in the mountains, where there are no trees, and its climax will involve fighting off an attacker with the aid of a stick. Since he didn’t have the stick in the previous scene, I want to explain how he acquired it. Here goes:
Aron paused halfway across a steeply sloping field of scree to catch his breath and assess his progress. He judged he was a little more than halfway to the pass. These mountains were too arid to support trees at this elevation and he had a clear view of the plain he had left, spread out below him, and of the ravine-like valley where he had picked up the trail that led to his present location. He glanced at the sun and took a swallow of precious water from his bottle, then started forward again. As he went, he used a stout stick to steady himself on the slippery slope. The stick was about five feet long, light but strong. He had cut it from one of the trees that grew sparsely along the stream in the bottom the valley. He had thought it might prove useful and he was very glad of it now. The trail he was following was sketchy at best. Even when the path wasn’t covered with loose fragments of rock, as it was here, it was steep, rock-strewn, and uneven.
Analysis: Okay, there are four past perfect verbs in the above passage. The first, “had left,” refers to the plain in the previous scene and comes midway through the third sentence after some introductory current action that is in simple past tense. This first use helps link the action to the previous scene as well as filling in an action that was skipped. “Had picked up the trail” places another detail in the gap. Finally, “had cut,” and “had thought” refer directly to the stick. (“Grew,” referring to the trees, doesn’t need to be past perfect because the trees are still growing in the valley. Past perfect is used for events that were completed in the past or conditions that no longer exist, not for ongoing conditions.) “He was very glad” is simple past tense that returns you to the current action. The passage also illustrates how switching back and forth between ongoing action and description of past action can avoid the repetitiousness of too many “hads” in close proximity.
In this particular case, substituting past tense in the first three instances feels “flat” and I know it’s ungrammatical, but I would have little difficulty deducing the meaning. He must have left the plain at some time in the past since he was there in the last scene and isn’t any longer; since he is currently following the trail, he must have picked it up in the past; and since he currently has the stick, he must have cut it in the past. In the last instance, however, “he thought it might prove useful” implies that he is anticipating a possible future use for the stick as he is crossing the slippery scree, rather than having anticipated the present kind of use at the time he cut the stick. The rest of the sentence and the subsequent details might cause one to question this interpretation, but do not clearly resolve the issue.
The preceding scene in this case could have been one that established a need to build the “device” mentioned, and the current scene skips to the building of it, leaving a day-long “shopping” expedition undescribed. I could have made a scene out of the shopping, and might have gotten some good mileage out of it, but let’s just say that the need to move the story along more rapidly has left it on the cutting room floor. There are never-the-less some aspects of that trip that are relevant to the plot, specifically the need for secrecy…
Simon waited until the last sounds of movement in the rooms below him ceased before emptying the contents of his pack onto the table in his loft room and sitting down to attempt to assemble the device. The process was going to take some time and he couldn’t afford any interruptions. The assortment of wires, switches, chips, and circuit boards didn’t look like much, but it had taken him the better part of a day in the tech bazaar in Sol City to purchase them. The task could have been accomplished much more quickly if there hadn’t been the need for total secrecy. He had crisscrossed the bazaar repeatedly, putting plenty of both time and distance between each pair of purchases so as not to draw attention to himself, and he was quite sure that he had not been followed home. He smiled with grim satisfaction as he plugged in his soldering iron.
Analysis: I’ll let you hunt down the past perfect verbs. I count four of them. In this case, the repetition of “had” verbs is diluted by a couple of infinitives (“to purchase,” “to draw), a “could have been,” and an “ing” verb (“putting”)—in addition to a simple past tense verb. To my ear, this passage would sound really bad with past tense substituted for past perfect—except for the reference to the need for secrecy. In that one case I think I could have used simple past because the need for secrecy is, in a sense, ongoing. The situation isn’t quite analogous to that of the growing trees in the first example. I come across such ambiguous situations from time to time where something, such as a character’s reaction, could be viewed as both in the past and ongoing. In such cases the writer has latitude. You can decide which aspect of the action you want to emphasize—or which verb just sounds better.
This post has gotten plenty long enough. I would love to hear from you if it was helpful, of course, but also if you have any related suggestions to offer to aspiring writers who are working to improve their craft.
When it comes to good writing, there’s only one rule that counts: Whatever you do, don’t do it badly.
It’s true but it doesn’t offer much help to the novice writer, and that has a lot to do with the current proliferation of “rules” for writing. People who feel they can distinguish between good and bad writing try to figure out what makes the difference. When they spot something they can put a finger on, they put out a “tip” or a “pointer” – only to have all the desperate would-be writers pounce on it and put it on a pedestal.
Example: It is true that some cases of bad writing are “bad” because they use adverbs badly. This has been turned into a “rule” that one should avoid adverbs like the plague. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs. Adverbs are useful. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have them. Like everything else, though, they have to be used well. You have to think when you use adverbs… or adjectives… or verbs… or pronouns…
Consider this: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” is not at all the same without the adverb (setting aside the question of the split infinitive). Some would argue that the writer should have used a more colorful verb than “go” so that “boldly” would not have been necessary. Maybe: “to venture where no one has ventured before?” Or, “to stride where no one has stridden before?” Honestly, I don’t see the improvement.
Then there’s “show, don’t tell.”
There is a literary style of story-telling in which the writer tries to avoid explicitly “telling” the reader what the characters are thinking or feeling – or what is significant in ongoing events – or even what is actually happening. Instead, he or she tries to “show” us these things by providing the clues, the bits of evidence. From these, we are supposed to figure it out. The character’s exact choice of words, his facial expression or body language, is supposed to “show” us what he is thinking or feeling. When well done, it can undeniably be an impressive feat.
This approach is best suited to stories that are small in scope and take place in contexts that are familiar to the reader. That way the writer can focus his energy – and expend his words – on detailing all those clues and bits of evidence.
The approach is not well suited to sweeping sagas, or futuristic or historical epics, or any story that requires large amounts of back-story or “world-building.” When there’s just plain a lot of story to tell, showing everything takes too long.
This is not to say that showing isn’t important. You may not need or want to show everything, but you should show the important stuff. The principle is the same as in writing an essay: If you want your story to be convincing, you must illustrate your points. In fiction, the important things include critical attributes of character, significant features of the setting, crucial events, etc. These things need to be illustrated. If your character is supposed to be a brilliant military strategist, you had better show him strategizing brilliantly. If it’s important to your story that the nobles are oppressing the peasants, there should be some visible acts of oppression. If the temperature dropped dramatically to twenty below overnight, you’d better show the steaming breaths, the blue lips and fingers, the ice in the fountain… Or, if a scene hinges on what a particular character is feeling, you should do everything you can to show us that feeling in all its power and glory. What you don’t need to do is to take every single opportunity that arises to “show” rather than “tell.” It isn’t necessary or practical (or even desirable) to “show” every detail of your story.
In fact, “telling” has two advantages over “showing:” It’s efficient, and it’s clear.
It almost always takes more words to show than to tell. Consider whether it’s worth it. Sometimes it’s better to just get on with the story. And attempts to completely avoid “telling” can cause confusion. Trying to show what your character is feeling through facial expressions, gestures, and body language alone, can fail if your reader doesn’t interpret those clues as you intend. Interpretation can be cultural – or individual. One person may express extreme anger with nothing more than a clenched jaw, another by screaming and throwing things. A description of twitching facial muscles and vibrating limbs might suggest to some readers that the character is frightened rather than angry – or is having a seizure… (It’s entirely possible to “show” things badly.) If you tell us the character is “furious,” your meaning won’t be misconstrued as long as the word is in the reader’s vocabulary. If it isn’t, the problem is solved by a dictionary.
Sometimes the best approach to the “show” versus “tell” dilemma is to do a little of both. Tell for clarity and show a bit for illustration. “He was plainly furious. His lips twitched. His fingers clenched on the handle of his cane.” Or, more simply: “He was shaking with rage.” That last one is a “show” and a “tell” all in one. It may not be literary, but if it serves the required purpose for the story you’re trying to tell, what’s wrong with it?
Opinions? Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your take on this burning issue.
When I read people’s fiction manuscripts I’m often surprised at how frequently I encounter things that just aren’t clear. (I probably shouldn’t be. As a writer you always know what you meant to say, and it can be hard to tell in the heat of the moment that you haven’t said it.) This is a much rarer flaw in published works of fiction – although I have had the same experience recently with published books or ebooks. It never used to happen, or almost never. I suspect the proliferation of self-published books and books from small indy publishers is at least partly to blame. The author may or may not have hired an editor, or may have used an inexperienced one. A small publisher may run the ms past one editor, whereas I’m told the major houses used to run them past several. More eyes are better. It’s that simple.
When I say things aren’t clear, I’m not talking about places where the writer was obviously trying to imply things, rather than explicitly state them, or deliberately trying to be ambiguous. I’m talking about ambiguity that’s obviously not intended.
One of the most frequent causes of unintended lack of clarity comes from ambiguous pronoun reference, something like this:
As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.
Who smiled and waved? Was it Jim or Bob? Is Jim asking where Bob is going on the bus, or is Bob asking where Jim is going on his bicycle?
Other things being equal, pronouns tend to attach themselves to the nearest preceding noun. “His” therefore refers to Jim. There’s really no other possibility. Both instances of “he” are most likely to refer to Bob, making Bob the one smiling and waving and also the one calling. If you as the writer meant otherwise, you had better say so, like this:
As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.
Now the remaining “he” feels like it refers to Jim because Jim is closer, so Jim is doing the calling as well as the smiling and waving. Again, if you didn’t mean that, you had better say so:
As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” Bob called.
But remember, I said “other things being equal.” Consider this rewriting of the original sentence:
As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.
Now Jim and Bob no longer have equal weight because “Jim” is being used grammatically as a subject whereas “Bob” is being used as an object. I’m not certain, but I feel as if all three instances of “he” more likely refer to Jim. Jim was the subject of the first sentence, so I tend to assume it’s Jim whose actions are being described as the narrative proceeds. If I intend otherwise, I must say so:
As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. Bob smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.
And again, I’ve now got Bob doing the calling because his is the closest name and it was used as a subject. If I meant to switch back to Jim, I should have written, “where are you going?” Jim called.
All right, now consider this variant:
As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His face broke into a smile and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.
Now, I tend to feel as if the “his” in “his face” could quite possibly refer to Bob. I think this is because “Bob” was used as an object and “his” is an object pronoun. It could still be Jim, but the connection is weakened and the sentence has really become ambiguous. Also, the last “he” now feels like it ought to have the same referent as the one in “he waved.” So again, I have to check to be sure that’s what I intended.
What’s the upshot here?
When you are describing action involving multiple characters of the same gender, the pronoun is not your friend. This doesn’t mean you should avoid all pronouns. You obviously need them sometimes. Repeating names over and over can sound repetitious and clunky. It just means that you have to regard all pronouns as suspect, potentially ambiguous until their possible referents have been checked and cleared. And if there’s any chance of confusion, out they go.
It’s a good idea to have alternative identifiers for your characters to help you avoid repeating the same name over and over. Alternative identifiers are things like: “the boy,” “the old man,” “the dark-haired girl,” “the fat woman,” “the farmer,” “the merchant,” “the Italian” – or even things like “his friend,” “the other man,” or “the speaker.”
I know you’re thoroughly tired of this sentence by now, but just to illustrate:
As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His friend’s face broke into a smile, and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.
Then, of course, there are the people who don’t like to use dialog tags, who want to just write, “where are you going?” Well, here’s one alternative fix for that approach:
“Where are you going, Jim?”
It’s remarkable how easy it is to end up with ambiguous pronouns. I know I find them all the time when reviewing my own writing. How about you? Have you noticed this problem in your own writing or in other people’s? Do you have your own tricks for dealing with it?
Every time I hear someone call another human being a “loser,” I feel it like the lick of a lash across my soul.
There are no Winners or Losers, only people – people who sometimes win and sometimes lose, who sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, at different things, and at different times, and under different circumstances. This is the only realistic and rational position on the subject. It’s also the one that is most kind and most humane.
When you label someone else a loser, you are doing him a cruelty and an injustice.
When you label yourself a loser – because of some specific failure or perceived pattern of failures, or because someone told you that you were – you’re doing yourself an injustice. You’re discounting every success you’ve ever had or will ever have, and sabotaging your very hope for success. This is pretty obvious.
What’s less obvious is that trying to fend off the “loser” label through so-called “positive thinking” by telling yourself you’re a “winner” is also a potentially self-destructive strategy. The odds are that sooner or later you’ll have a failure that will cause you to doubt the truth of that “winner” label.
The problem, you see, is with the labels – with the whole concept that “winners” and “losers” are things that really exist, and therefore things that people can actually be.
There are no Winners or Losers, only people.
Don’t label yourself.
And, please, don’t label anyone else, either.
The preceding has been a public service announcement (personal rant), courtesy of one who’s had her share of both successes and failures so far in this life and fully expects the pattern to continue.
Some people advocate avoiding long passages in the past perfect because the repetition of “had” sounds clunky or becomes distracting. Well, it can. The skilled writer is always aware of how the writing “sounds,” of distracting repetitions, poor rhythm, awkward phrasing. So there is a legitimate reason to know how to avoid the need for too much use of the past perfect.
Avoiding the need for the past perfect is not, however, the same thing as just blithely substituting the past tense for it in places where the past perfect is grammatically required.
Consider this: What would you think if someone suggested that when handling a long passage referring to previous events in an otherwise present-tense narrative, the writer should switch to the present after 2-3 past-tense verbs and then switch back to the past for the last 2-3 verbs at the end of the passage? Completely ridiculous, right? Yet some people are apparently suggesting that writers switch from the past perfect to the past, and back to the past perfect, like this to avoid too much use of the past perfect.
This is not a skilled writer’s approach to the problem.
There are plenty of perfectly legitimate ways to avoid the need for the past perfect.
1. The most direct approach is to tell the events in your story in the order in which they occur. In theory this would work, but it conflicts with the principle that events should be dealt with at the point in the story where their presentation is most effective. You might consider it, but unless your story is naturally totally linear, sooner or later you will need the past perfect.
2. Shift references to past events into dialog. Your characters will naturally talk about ongoing events in present tense and about earlier events in past tense. End of problem.
3. Monolog works too. Your character can talk to himself about his past experience and this will follow the same pattern of verb tense use as normal dialog.
4. Bring the past into the present. This is the best way to handle a lengthy passage that would require past perfect if dialog is not appropriate and your character isn’t given to soliloquy. This is a true “flashback,” the vivid re-experiencing of a past event in the present. But, you have to set it up so it’s clear to your reader what is happening and use of the past tense feels natural, and you have to be just as clear about bringing your character back to reality at the flashback’s end.
She stared at the object lying at the bottom of the trunk. She had seen it before. Her mind flew back to that moment, three years ago, and she was there again. She saw her father drop the new casting into the cooling bath. The water hissed and steamed at contact with the hot metal. Her father fanned the steam away, and she could see the small crescent of silver gleaming under the water’s surface. He fished it out with the tongs and held it up, turning it this way and that so it reflected the firelight. It seemed at that moment to be made of gold rather than silver. “Tonight I will clean and polish it,” he said. “And tomorrow I will set the stone.”
She blinked, banishing memory’s vision. She felt a lump in her throat as she reached into the trunk. Her father had made the silver and opal pendant for the Lord of Eastwing’s daughter. He had finished it just two days before his death.
For this example, I start with a precipitating event: She stared at the object lying in the bottom of the trunk. This is in past tense because it’s part of the ongoing action. Then I switch to past perfect for a single short sentence – She had seen it before – to tell the reader I’m referring to an earlier event. This is followed by the set-up for the flashback: Her mind flew back to that moment, three years ago, and she was there again. The sentence brings the past into the present and is in past tense because it’s part of the ongoing action.
The flashback follows. This is her memory from the past, re-experienced as if it were present (ongoing action) and therefore told in the past tense. It goes on for several sentences and contains a line of dialog.
Finally, I end the flashback, starting a new paragraph and bringing her mind back to the present: She blinked, banishing memory’s vision. The next sentence – She felt a lump in her throat as she reached into the trunk – is in simple past tense and should be clearly understood to be part of the present ongoing action because I’ve told you the flashback is over. Since I’m not quite through referring to past events, however, the next two sentences are in the past perfect. They’re outside the flashback and describe additional events relating to her father that took place in the past.
A flashback doesn’t have to be set up exactly as I did it in this example. How you do it depends on how it fits into the story. There could be more past perfect before the flashback begins. There could be more or less after it ends. The flashback could be longer, even a lot longer, but if you do that you had better be sure your character is sitting down – or otherwise in circumstances that will support a long period of reflection. A flashback interrupts the flow of the ongoing action. Really long ones therefore should be set in action that isn’t too pressing.
Moving back and forth between ongoing action and reference to past events, and therefore between the past tense and the past perfect – as I did in several places in the example – can also legitimately dilute the frequency of “had.” If you do it for grammatically valid reasons, the result should be crystal clear. If you switch back and forth between the two tenses ungrammatically, howerver – just to get rid of the “had” – you risk losing clarity and making your reader backtrack to figure out what you meant.
This seems like rather an advanced topic for Lesson 2, but I was responding to comments on Lesson 1 from some of my highly sophisticated readers.
So how did I do this time? Useful? Not? All stuff you already knew or that you’ve heard before? Do you have any other approaches that you use in your writing to address this issue?