These notes are for the use of creative writing students. There is generally a copyright problem which prevents much of a given author's work being quoted for detailed discussion and this is the sole reason why I am using my own work for illustration purposes in order to discuss particular aspects of style.
Show not Tell
There is a general edict that novelists should "show" and not "tell". Basically this is because "telling" brings the author's individual voice too strongly to the fore and thereby destroys what publishers like to call the "suspension of disbelief"; in other words, any strong engagement an author has with the storyline becomes a "voice-over" and is a distraction for a reader otherwise immersed in the story. Start listening to the author's personal thoughts and opinions and that delicate balance is ruined. This "up-front" authorial style was common in the early days of literature but is more frowned upon now, and it is generally regarded as a "no-no" for debut authors. Then again, as many creative writing students point out, it is still quite common with many best-selling authors. So why shouldn't they do it? The easiest answer is to say that it is best for debut novelists to avoid "telling" because it can easily get out of hand and destroy a reader's engagement with the story as something they can imagine to be real. More experienced authors can use telling with a lighter hand and so get away with it. Why would they want to tell? Because it is easier, shorter, and avoids tricky manoeuvres. That's not to say it's a good technique—although it can work splendidly for young children!
In SANDMAN I try to show, rather than tell, whenever I can, but I do slip in a little 'tell' if there is no easy way to avoid it; if I do this, I try to keep the telling down to a minimum and then quickly step back from the reader's head, hoping I was not even noticed. Here are some examples of this.
In the new scene on page 21 I am telling 'the lad with the rolled up jeans pushed his boat into the water', but follow this, by implication, with what he saw, what he heard, how he savoured it, and how he felt it was good to be alive.
The following paragraph (on page 21) introduces some scene-setting, but note how this is as seen through the character's eyes, rather than just describing it.
The above description might have said something like this: 'The boat drifted gently. The long sandbank separated the harbour from the sea. Beyond, only faintly discernable through the morning haze, was the distant outline of the Isle-of-Wight. The beach huts along the golden line of sand were like colourful beads on a necklace...' If it had, however, you would be very aware of the intrusive author's voice — whereas the published version describes a character's experience — so the reader stays within that character.
It is much more enjoyable to have a varying pace within a novel. This means a mixture of short and long sentences, short and long paragraphs, and slow and fast action. If the action is fast, the sentence length should be shorter so the reader 'feels' more breathless. If the mood is slow and languid, longer sentences and paragraphs help to portray this mood.
When Carol Davis is attacked (on pages 11-12), we guess she is going to be raped, but this is left to the reader's imagination at this point. Why not be explicit and provide the details? To be explicit takes a lot of words, and a lot of words slow a scene down, whereas an attack and rape is likely to be at a furious pace. In any case, the reader's imagination can fill in all the details. But I come back to this as a memory (on page 16), and here I compare it to a movie running at 'crazy speed'. The details are given in a very long paragraph with phrases separated by semicolons: because these tell the reader to pause less than the full-stops of sentences. So the reader reads at a 'crazy speed' and gets a better sense of the event and an appreciating of the panic involved. Already the reader has pictured this event and this recollection enhances and complements that by outlining some detail. It was a nightmare experience, and here the pace and manner offer it to the reader almost like a nightmare. The recollection is as follows:
Normally I would never consider writing a sentence this long, but it is fine to break the rules if you have good reason. This scene condenses what happened afterwards in a manner that is shown and not told. It 'reclaims' the opportunity to dwell on the drama of the attack, but it efficiently condenses everything in a manner that reflects the horrible pace of the events as they played out for Carol (while visualising it as happening to a character called Michelle, during a film). This is an illustration of how style can manipulate the emotions of a reader.
Dialogue is good for introducing realism, showing character, and furthering the plot in a cunning way that avoids 'telling' narrative. As so many have explained before, do not be afraid to just say 'said' after speech, for this word really does almost disappear in the reader's subconscious, and adjectives such as muttered, shouted, hissed, etc, can, and should, generally be avoided. If the conversation is between two people then it is best not to attribute the speaker when it will be obvious through sequence, manner tone or action who is speaking. In a long exchange it is necessary to put in some markers now and then, to make sure the reader does not get lost, but often this can be done in a subtle way by introducing an action for the speaker or, if a viewpoint character, maybe a thought. In the following scene (beginning on page 19), Paul and Sasha are talking and no one else is present. There is no need for a single 'said' because of the actions described — and they also add to realism and help the reader to picture the scene.
Little phrases like 'he paused' attribute the speech without the need for: ‘I don’t get wrong mobile calls,’ he said. Glancing through SANDMAN I notice that embedding small actions is a technique I use a lot in order to attribute speech while also making scenes more dynamic. Here is another example which blends 'said' into passages that employ actions; there's nothing like variety. (The following is from page 69):
Another thing to consider when a lot of facts must be put over is how much of a conversation you should include. It gets a bit tiring for the reader if speech goes on for pages and pages, and it is bad 'telling' rather than 'showing' if you just only narrative to get this over. A technique I use is to mix the two together, as in the following example (on pages 141-142), where 'telling' is masked by embedding it within dialogue. (Never 'telling' is practically impossible without it affecting a natural style, and a natural style is important.)
This passage even manages to include a condensed version of what Carol had earlier told Paul. It is slipped in amongst a lot of direct dialogue, and this alters the pace nicely while to get over important facts — especially how everything is affecting their feelings and emotions.
Changing point-of-view — and how this might affect voice
It can be a worry for authors that readers might not be 'with it' after they change point-of-view (POV). One solution is to restrict this to chapters, and some even go to the length of providing a chapter title which makes this clear. But readers are pretty bright, and it really only takes a few clues for them to follow.
I change POV a lot in SANDMAN, but I only ever use a single point-of-view within a scene. While writing I used hidden text at the head of each scene within my word processor (made visible to me) to indicate which character 'owned' the scene. This prevents accidentally slipping into the wrong character (especially during subsequent revision). I considered which POV character was affected most in that scene and gave them the POV. I limit the number of POV characters to avoid confusion. In rare scenes, where a principal POV character is not present, I write the scene 'third-person objective': like a film, where the reader simply observes but is not privy to any of the characters' thoughts.
I also used special techniques in SANDMAN to make it easier for the reader to quickly assess who the POV character is within each scene. The simple way is to open the scene naming that character, but sometimes the POV character was anonymous. I also change the tone of voice to give principal characters their own tone so the POV hopefully remains plain in the reader's mind. Here are some examples.
Stevie Clarke is a bit simple-minded, so both his speech and his POV scenes reflect this when we get into his inner thoughts (starting at the bottom of page 39):
Leah, on the other hand, is a really bright and intelligent girl. See how the voice is different. It's also immediately clear this new scene is from her POV (page 112);
Paul Vincent is a wilful and emotional man and his POV scenes reflect this, as follows (from page 62):
To summarise my feelings, I would suggest that the debut novelists should be aware of the rules, break them as little as possible in order to gain his or her break, but not be afraid to break a rule in special circumstances if this offers a positive contribution to the mood of the story. Be creative. Be brave. Do what your heart dictates.
Reading Group's Guide - for Writers!
The questions suggested for discussion in the companion Reading Group's Guide might be of interest to writer's groups.