Wednesday, January 19, 2011

To BE or Not To Be

This deep question posed by Hamlet is not merely about living or dying, it seeks to find the meaning in life, as well as the breadth, scope, purpose, and tangibility in it. There's an underlining hope for making an impact in it, to thrive beyond the pages of existence. To Be. It is the question of life. Everyone wants that. To Be.

Whether you know it or not, when readers delve into your story, they subconsciously ask this question of your creations. Will they feel alive or not? Can you make them Be, full of life, uniqueness and complexity, jumping off the page, demanding to be noticed and not soon forgotten, or will they be Nots, deadwood, quickly cast into a bin with other flat-lined drones, ill-crafted by countless others before you?

The best way to reveal true character and circumstance is to show. Many writers always chant the "Show, Don't Tell" mantra because it's a vital ingredient for good storytelling, while others are left shrugging their shoulders, unsure as to what that even means.

In my WIP, Sapphire Reign, my fifteen-year-old character, Skye, is adventurous and feisty. She's an anonymous writer for the school paper and is attempting to uncover the secrets of this mysterious, terrorizing bunch of tricksters in her school called the Wisteria Sisters so she can expose the truth to the masses. Doing so could be dangerous, since she has no clue who or what she's dealing with.

All that about her could easily be summarized in narrative, but that would be telling. Instead, when I pull her onstage in chapter 7, I open her POV like this:

* * *

A scant shuffle of her pink, suede boot sent pebbles tumbling down the jagged face of the cliff side. They clacked like bones snapping until they plunked into the roaring river below, exactly where the current picked up and foamed around boulders.

Just jump, Skye. Jump. Do it. Jump.

Her body tensed. Skye gulped and edged back several steps. The fifteen-year-old covered her face for a few moments and adopted a slow-breathing rhythm to quiet her better judgment before it changed her will. She'd hiked all the way up here through layers and layers of gray to do this. Her mind was set but her shaking body stood very opposed to her decision. Her present espionage gig aside, she never considered herself suicidal. And that's what this was. Suicide.

Skye refused to let herself back out. She took one deep breath and just did it. She ran two strides and jumped. At the fall, she screamed. Her stomach leapt into her throat. A hawk swooped below her. For one split second, she flew too and then fell into a thrilling negative-G producing plunge until her weight mashed into her harness seat and tugged taught at the zipline.

The rush surged so much greater than it ever had. Of course, she'd only zipped through woods, never over a gorge filled with so many ways to die.

"Whooooohoooo. This is crazy awesoooome. Wooo," she yelled on her rapid swoop. She buzzed down, seeing a cascading waterfall from a bird's-eye view, then fell fast in front of it, getting sprayed in its frigid mist as it spilled into another river. "Sweeeeet." Getting wet spots on her sweatshirt was a minor discomfort, with exhilaration making it so worthwhile.

* * *

Then it breaks into dialogue with her two friends that reveals her main goal. In this scene I refrained from writing one thing in the narrative about her personality, her purpose and the potential danger she's really jumping into. Dialogue and action reveal all of that. It's more engaging this way. Readers now know she's a fearless risk-taker, they've seen it, and that her friends, even the wild one who dared to make the zipline jump with her, think she's crazy for going after the Wisteria Sisters. That shows far more about the circumstance and character than telling in a summary ever could.

Here is an example of telling versus showing:

T: Sam, so hot and parched, doubted he'd make it out of the desert alive, but he kept going, a step at a time.

S: The sun lapped up Sam's sweat before it could bead on his arms and grit coated his throat, scraping it with each swallow. He smacked his tongue, but saliva remained dormant. Barely ambling, though still trying, he looked ahead again, shading his eyes with his hand, blinking at the vultures...waiting. An ocean of sand lay before him. Only by God will I get outta here alive.

Showing engages readers and helps them to identify with your characters. Show when you can. Let your people Be.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

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