In the last post I took a look at making it clear what was behind a character’s actions and suggested that in most cases it's preferable to just tell the reader what's going on up front.
In this follow up I will attempt to clarify how and when to use telling to get the most out of a scene. As with any technique, a lot still depends on how well you execute it, but knowing the advantages and disadvantages should help.
For the purposes of this, the example I’ll be using will be a man breaking into a house.
There are three ways to do this in terms of character motivation.
1. I don’t tell you why he’s breaking into the house and either let you figure it out for yourself or reveal his reasons after the fact.
2. I show you in a previous scene why he needs to get into this house.
3. I tell you his reasons as he breaks in or just before.
1. Jerry squeezed through the window and dropped to the floor. He crouched, frozen, listening for any sounds.
In terms of making it clear what going on, you can do that very easily simply by relating what he does as he does it. There should be no confusion about the fact he’s in a place he shouldn’t be, that he’s worried about getting caught, and establishing tension should be pretty straightforward.
The way he acts, the care he takes to not get caught, will create suspense and drama and draw the reader into the story.
But how long will the reader wait to find out what he’s up to? And what does the writer gain in making them wait?
2. “I swear on my life,” said Miranda. “I left your mother’s ring on the bedside table the day we broke up. I don’t have it.”
Jerry nodded his head. “You’re a lying bitch, Miranda.”
In order to show Jerry’s reason for house breaking you would need to go back in time (either through flashback or by starting the story earlier). This requires extra work. You obviously want any scene you write to be dramatic and interesting, and you have to make a judgement about whether it’s going to be worth it.
You will be affecting the pace and entry point, and you may also be opening the door on a bunch of other reasons and motivations. If you’re going to show all motivations, where will it end?
And another issue is that it’s only possible to show fairly simple motivation. Anger or guilt or jealousy can be dramatised quite easily. Anything more complex or subtle isn’t quite so straightforward.
If Jerry’s breaking into his ex-faincee’s house to get back the engagement ring she claims she no longer has, and the reason it’s important to him is that he suspected she cheated on him but he could never prove it and if he finds the ring in her house, that would prove she was a liar and so indirectly prove him right for dumping her... how would you show that?
3. Jerry stood in Miranda’s bedroom and thought, If I was a lying, conniving bitch, where would I hide an engagement ring that didn’t belong to me?
How much info I choose to give the reader, and what tone I use (Jerry is apparently still quite upset with Miranda) is a matter of personal preference. But the question I would pose is this: does informing the reader about the character’s motivations take away from the reader’s curiosity about what happens next?
Because often the reason writers decide it is worth allowing the reader to be confused is because of the extra sense of intrigue it produces. But in truth, as long as the character’s reasons are valid, they won’t be any more interesting by revealing them later.
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