Archive for September 6th, 2009

Sep 06 2009

Don’t Tell the Reader What the Character Isn’t Doing

Published by under Writing Articles

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

“John almost slapped his wife.”

It rarely matters what the character is not doing, or is almost doing, or whatever. Positive actions– what the character is doing or has done– are almost always more powerful.

One of the problems is that telling us what almost happened is usually dull narratorial exposition. If what the character almost does is really that important, please at least show it with an action rather than narrate it. (Show, don’t tell!) For example, instead of “Mary almost shot Jamal,” it would be much more effective to show her hand wavering as she holds the gun on Jamal. First, it’s more visceral and easier to visualize. Second, it’s very awkward to switch from a character almost doing something to actually doing it.  That’s a problem because saying that someone almost does something essentially takes the action off the table, which damages the suspense.  In contrast, when Mary’s shakily holding the gun against Jamal, we don’t know whether she will shoot. It gives us more to wonder about.

Another problem is that telling us what doesn’t happen is rarely necessary. If it is truly notable that the character does not do something, the reader will notice that the action doesn’t happen whether or not you explicitly say it. For example, here’s an author explicitly telling us that a husband doesn’t respond to a serious accusation.

“You’ve been cheating on me,” she said.

He didn’t say anything.

“He didn’t say anything” is wasted space that could have been used to develop his emotional state and personality. Check out these alternatives.

“You’ve been cheating on me,” she said.

He buttered his toast. OR He studied his shoes. OR He shrugged.

In each of these cases, the reader will still notice that the husband doesn’t say anything. But the positive action adds emotional depth. The character that butters his toast is eerily nonchalant and will probably come off as callous. The guy that studies his shoes is understandably embarrassed. If the author just leaves it at “he didn’t say anything,” we don’t pick up any of these emotional cues.

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