Author: Sandy Vaile
Previously published by Romance Writers of Australia, Hearts Talk ezine, August 2022
There is one simple principle that lays the foundation for effortless showing in fiction. A principle from which all the other showing techniques are built and, once put into practice, triggers momentum that carries characters through the story organically.
That principle is: Put characters in motion.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “show don’t tell”. It’s bandied around writing circles like scones at high tea, and yet it’s the concept that causes new writers the most anguish. Sure, you know what telling is but how do you blend it with showing and where does telling end and showing begin?
It’s nerve-wracking when the consequence of not figuring this out is a bland reader experience and permanently missing the mark with competition judges, agents and publishers.
Well, I believe there’s an easier way to approach this subject: throw out the notion of showing and telling as separate entities and focus on active storytelling. This concept is the basis for my Active Storytelling Method© and I’ve seen how well it works in getting authors to put their characters in motion, which carries readers through the story with them.
The Concept of Active Storytelling
Active storytelling is simple because it applies to almost every part of your story:
Imagine that! Just one concept to enhance your storytelling and keep the story moving forwards.
In each of the abovementioned situations, ask yourself, “How can I put my character in motion?”.
Choose Situations and Locations that Foster Engagement
When deciding what situation to put your characters in, try to put them with other people as often as possible. This forces them to interact with those characters, resulting in active storytelling like dialogue and body language.
Also, consider what the conflict will be, i.e. what they will battle against, whether it’s another person, a difficult situation or their own insecurities. When characters are trying to solve problems or overcome challenges, they inevitably make decisions and take action.
Pushing characters outside of their comfort zones inevitably leads to exposing their flaws; the traits they try to hide from others, but which surface as they struggle to overcome fears and insecurities.
Let Characters Demonstrate Their Desires and Motivations
It is so much more powerful to let characters demonstrate who they are than to have the narrator telling readers how to feel about what’s going on.
Who your character is deep inside, what they want and why it’s important to them will be revealed naturally if you put them in motion. Think about what a character wants in a particular scene and what drives them to want it, e.g. past events that formed their beliefs and/or current events that create a need. Then come up with a situation that will show these things.
Do you see what I did there?
Instead of thinking about how to explain what they want and their motivations, the characters will be in a situation that innately shows them wanting those things and purposefully taking action to get them.
When it comes to uncovering backstory, decide what situation would trigger the character to find information about the past or recall a memory. Don’t just have them sitting still and thinking about a random event from their past; have them in a situation or place they couldn’t possibly move through without backstory being revealed.
Secondary characters are fantastic for actively showing who your main character is because having multiple people in a scene, naturally leads to conversations and interactions. Readers get to hear and see a different perspective of the main character, including things they’d rather not reveal themselves.
Secondary characters either support or hinder the main character by:
Have Characters Interact as They Move Through the Story
As characters move through the story world, let them:
Let me show you what I mean.
Narrative – Margo entered the drab lounge room with its brown velvet couch, floral curtains and dusty furniture.
Interactive – Margo strolled into the lounge room and dusted the seat of the brown velvet couch before perching on the edge of it, so as to keep fabric contact to a minimum. She reached towards the coffee table, spotted dust-encrusted layers of crumbs and circular mug stains, and then returned her handbag to her lap. The room was dull behind heavy floral curtains and she pressed her lips tight against the dust motes lazily swirling through the air.
Can you see how in the interactive version, you get more information than simply what is in the room and what it looks like? Margo’s attitude towards the state of the room is insinuated in the way she touches things and the details she focuses on. You still know the couch is brown and the curtains are floral, but you have also experienced the textures and dilapidation of everything in it.
The danger of having inert characters is that authors often feel compelled to explain what readers are seeing and how they should feel about it. But when you put those same characters in motion, readers get to see what’s happening and draw their own conclusions about how they feel about it and what it means.
Being able to discover information with the character and interpret their responses, is half the fun for readers.
The Power of Active Sentences
The power of words becomes evident when we create active sentences.
Active sentences put the action first and the person or object being acted upon, after it, i.e. the subject acts upon the verb. This composition makes sentences clear and direct, which equates to easier to read.
Where to Next?
As I’ve demonstrated, having a character doing something makes it easier for authors to deliver an interesting journey their readers can become immersed in and explore with the characters. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just put characters in motion by choosing situations and places that force them to interact and spur them into action.
Allowing readers to discover information and draw their own conclusions is far more interesting than being told what to see and feel. They get to be a part of your story world for a little while and enjoy the emotional ups and downs as the characters experience them.
Now that’s a powerful journey!
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