Monday 18 March 2013

Tell The Reader Why

While showing, rather than telling, is an excellent technique when it comes to moments of action, drama and emotion, there are times when telling is a far more useful and efficient approach to take. 

One of those times is when dealing with motivation. Why a character does what he does is going to be a key part of any scene.

It’s important that you make the reader aware of the character’s reasons as quickly as possible. As a writer, you may think you can withhold that information and that the reader will assume you will fill them in later and not be too bothered. You would be wrong.

It’s incredibly annoying not knowing the reasons for a character’s actions, and it directly affects how you view what they’re doing. It's much more difficult to engage or empathise with a character when you don’t know their reasons.

But it’s hard to show motivation, especially if there are subtle or complex reasons behind a character’s behaviour. And in most cases it’s just a matter of practical necessity.

If a character is unscrewing an air vent in order to escape from a locked room, or if he’s doing it to hide a bag full of money in there, a longwinded demonstration of his reasons is less important than just letting the reader know which it is.

Waiting until he’s finished taking down the vent cover before telling us why he’s doing it may not seem like a big deal, but not knowing what’s going on isn’t a desirable state to be in. And holding back and then revealing fairly mundane information isn’t very impressive.

Far more effective to just tell the reader he’s hiding the money from his wife who’ll only ask where the money came from, and since he promised her he wouldn’t rob any more banks, she wouldn’t like the answer.  And then move on.

Trying to ‘show’ that motivation wouldn’t be difficult and totally unnecessary. And not telling the reader until later would gain nothing and just make the story seem vague.

It’s obvious why aspiring writers often take the vague approach. The idea of not knowing what’s going on and then finding out seems like a narrative structure that will keep readers engaged, but it’s an artificial way to do it. If a guy is searching under his bed for something there’s no point in making a mystery out of it if all he’s doing is looking for his shoes.

There’s also the issue of POV. If the character knows why they’re doing what they’re doing, so should the reader (assuming we’re in that character’s POV). Not revealing the reasons just feels unnecessarily coy.

Of course, if the POV character doesn’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing then neither will the reader, but then someone should ask them (or they should ask themselves) why they’re acting in this way. You don’t have to provide an answer, but showing the reader you are aware of the lack of motivation will buy you time. Not for very long though.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If the character knows, the reader will know. I've always gone under that assumption.

Al Diaz said...

But if the character is not the PoV, I am finding it extremely difficult to reveal the motivations behind some of his actions, except in the long term.

Al Diaz said...

Oh, and sorry I have not told you but I awarded you with the Sunshine Award. Should you accept it, here it is the info.

mooderino said...

@Alex - I don't think you really gain anything from delaying, even if you can.

@Al - It can be harder but be direct if you have to. Oh, and thanks very much for the award.

Sarah Foster said...

It's hard to care about what a character is doing if you don't know WHY they're doing it. And if it's in first person, if the narrator is holding back, he may seem unreliable.

Unknown said...

John walked into the room. "What are you doing?" he asked Joe.

"I'm unscrewing this vent cover to change the filter. It's filthy."

"Oh. For a minute there, I thought you'd found a hiding place for that dead body lying next to you on the floor."


"Yes, I know. Diane didn't let you in on that part, did she? Damn authors."

Unknown said...

This can be a little hard for me to do. I find that sometimes, when I think I've very clearly indicated what the character's motives are and what they're doing and why, that actually I did not make it clear enough to the reader. :\ This is why I usually have some one go over it before posting it. Of course, some readers really don't seem to get what happened, even if you directly explain it too them.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - it's much more interesting when you know what's going on in a story.

@Diane - Authors!

@Rena - It's hard seeing it the way a reader will see it.

dolorah said...

The show vs tell balance is difficult to maintain.


Andrea Mack said...

The "Show Don't Tell" rule can definitely be over used. Great points! I find that actions that are supposed to show emotion don't go deep enough unless I know what's going on in the character's thoughts.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I'm currently writing a story in first person present tense and finding it hard to show what's going on sometimes because the main character isn't supposed to know about it. It's a lot of fun trying to get creative with the narrative.

Margo Berendsen said...

Some examples would be helpful here - a good one and a bad one for contrast. ANy chance you could do that in a followup post?

mooderino said...

@Donna - just bear in mind that if what you're writing is interesting it doesn't matter how you convey it, just as long as you do it clearly.

@Andrea - readers are generally very flexible. They want to know what's happening, they don't really care about much else.

@Michael - I think that's how it should be, entertaining and requiring some brain muscle.

@Margo - As you wish.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Good points. I like a bit of mystery, but unless that guy's actually pulling out a a pair of size 12 stiletto pumps in hot pink patent, it's not worth dragging the scene out.

Rachel said...

Hi! I'm Rachel. I'm doing the A-Z Blogging Challenge in April this year so I thought I should stop by to introduce myself.

Basically everything you said is true. If I'm reading a book, I want to know what the character is doing and why they're doing it. What bothers me that most, is when the writer will give all sorts of details about what the character is doing, but then leaves out anything remotely important to the story.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - a good reveal can be worth it, but most of the time what you've been waiting to find out isn't all that interesting.

@Rachel - Hello. Will pop over and visit your site!

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