He's also one of the best writing teachers I know, and today he's guest blogging on Motivation-Reaction Units, which for me, personally, are one of the best writing techniques in my arsenal.
Without any further ado, here's Randy!
THE FUNDAMENTAL UNIT OF CONFLICT
I critique a lot of manuscripts at writing conferences, and there's one problem I see over and over again. It's the most common problem I see. The usual thing that editors say when they see this problem is, "Show, Don't Tell."
Those pesky editors usually scrawl this in red ink at the top of the page, without much more explanation than that.
I hate that. Don't get me wrong--I love the editors, who are very nice but vastly overworked. I hate that they scribble those Three Horrible Words without explaining. They do it because they don't have the time to write a thousand-word explanation of what's wrong. But it's not very helpful to the poor writer.
The reason this is so unhelpful is that the editor has just TOLD you to "Show, Don't Tell," when what they really needed was to SHOW you how to "Show, Don't Tell."
Now there are things you really don't want to "show." You don't want to show the boring parts of a character's life. You want to tell those, as quickly as you can, so you can get to the good stuff.
The good stuff is the conflict, and conflict should always be "shown" and not "told."
How do you do that?
It's really pretty simple. When you break conflict down to its smallest pieces, each piece looks like one of these:
* You hit me in the face. It hurts like heck, so I kick you in the . . . um, shins.
* You say something snarky to me. I don't like it, so I make a brilliant and witty comeback.
* The car ahead of me is way too close when it hits the brakes. A little shock of fear sweeps through me; I instinctively jam on the brakes, but I realize that I'm still going to hit the wretched rattletrap; finally I swerve around it onto the shoulder of the road.
None of these little chunks is a whole story, of course. They're just a piece of the conflict. But they're the smallest possible piece that actually has conflict. If you break them down any further, you don't have conflict.
Each of them is what we might call an Action plus a Reaction. The Action part is what somebody else does. The Reaction is what I do.
What does all this have to do with "Show, Don't Tell?"
It has everything to do with it. Let me make a couple of observations:
The Reaction part is whatever your Point Of View character does. Since your reader is inside the skin of this character, you can (and should) show it all--her feelings, her instinctive reactions, her thoughts, and her actions.
The Action part is everything else that happens. Since the Actions are typically seen or heard (or smelled or felt or sensed) by the Point Of View character, you want to show those Actions the way your POV character would see or hear or smell or feel or sense them. You show them exactly that way, in real-time, and that's it.
Then you show the POV character's Reaction exactly the way he or she experiences it, in real-time, showing the quickest parts of the Reaction first, followed by the next quickest parts, and so on. Since a person's emotive responses are most always quicker than any action they can take, you generally show those first. Then you show any instinctive responses. Then, since the rational part of our brains act slowest, you show any rational actions or words.
If you look at the three examples I gave above, you'll see that I followed this pattern exactly: a simple Action, followed by a somewhat more complex Reaction.
However, each of the three examples is actually just a summary of what happens. In order to be writing real fiction, you need to expand each of these.
But the important thing is that if you've got this sort of Action-Reaction alternating pattern, then turning it from "telling" into "showing" is just a matter of typing the words. The reason is because both an Action and a Reaction are things that happen in a very short period of time--usually a few seconds. And it's easy to "show" something that happens on that kind of timescale.
Drat! I'm already way over my word-limit for this blog entry, so I need to stop here. Let me refer you to a much longer article on my web site for the rest of what I want to say about all this:
Bio: Randy Ingermanson is the award-winning author of six novels. He publishes the world's largest electronic magazine on fiction writing, the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, and blogs daily on his Advanced Fiction Writing Blog. Visit his web site at: