Writing Secrets: Writing takes thought – so look beyond the obvious

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

Let’s look beyond the obvious in the old tenets of writing advice.

We all know that “showing” is supposed to be better than “telling”. We know, for instance, that we should use all our senses when giving the impression of a place.

It may be timeworn counsel, but that doesn’t mean its day is done. In our teaching, I become more and more convinced of the power of showing – particularly if you look beyond its most obvious dictates.

What takes more thought – because writing does take thought – is that we should also interpret our characters as little as possible. Leave that for the readers. They do it every day in real life: they pick up the cues, and work out what they mean.

And be oblique where possible, rather than in-your-face, particularly when it comes to emotion.

I came across these two examples, recently, which I thought I’d share. Writing an assignment from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy, one of our participants wrote: My entire body tensed up.

Firstly, it didn’t quite ring true for me that a boy that age would be so aware of his body and so insightful about his responses. Secondly, it’s a bit of a “tell”. Surely it would be more powerful to think about what he would be aware of from within his body, in his skin. Perhaps: My fingers dug into my palms till they ached.

We readers will take note, and do the interpreting. We’ll think: oh, he’s all tensed up.

Here’s an example of some lovely oblique writing from another of our participants:

Coming in from the bright sunshine outside, Nicholas struggled to focus in the gloomy room. It smelt stuffy too. Strange. Amy had not opened any windows or blinds, except the one near the bed.

“Are you …?” The sounds were definitely coming from the bed.

“Are you … crying?” Not a word.

One’s first instinct as a writer might have been to state the obvious: that Amy was sobbing or snuffling and blowing her nose. Instead our participant gave it more thought, because every word is important for good writing. She came up with something infinitely more subtle.

Oblique writing creates a more powerful effect for readers. Instead of simply being informed of something, we’re able to immerse ourselves in the moment. We discover actions and events – and interpret their meaning – at the same rate as our perspective character.

Because we are shown, we can be there with him.

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