Baby, What Are You Thinking? Show and Tell Isn’t Just for School, Ya know…
Today's Guest post comes from Mr. Marc Mattaliano.
Read some of Marc's writing here: https://www2.xlibris.com/bookstore/bookdisplay.aspx?bookid=72031&pdept=Bookstore%20Homepage&pfind=browseWriting since I was little, the best thing to describe Marc Mattaliano is his analytical nature that knows no bounds. Intelligence is defined as what you know, while wisdom is defined as what you get out of what you know. My personal experiences have been slight, but I have gained so much from each and every one of them by asking questions, constantly breaking things down and wondering if my choices have been the right ones, that I consider myself wiser than some who have endured far more than me yet are completely unwilling to question anything. When it comes to writing, despite having three full-length books (one self-published, one almost ready for queries, and one in need of major updating), my work may seem amateur to some, but I’ve come to find that everything I put together these days is extremely intentional. A lot of people say they don’t want to die with regrets. Personally, I love my regrets. They inspire me to do things better next time. I’m 30, born and raised in NJ, 100% Italian, and I’m a lot harsher in words than I am in person. Enjoy!
Baby, What Are You Thinking? Show and Tell Isn’t Just for School, Ya know…
Some of you TV buffs may have heard the recent announcement that the critically acclaimed FOX show, Lie to Me, was unfortunately cancelled. I was extremely skeptical of the show when it was promoted before the pilot aired, but my fiancée and I decided to give it a shot. Sure enough, it only took an episode or two before we were hooked.
For those who didn’t see it, the show focused on a character named Cal Lightman, a man versed in the science of reading peoples’ instinctual facial expressions to tell if they’re lying. The idea is that when we’re angry, happy, sad, pensive, ambitious, anything you can think of, our face and body show it. So, when Cal would present people with certain stimuli or ask certain questions, he’d read the little twitches and movements their faces and bodies made, and based on what emotions they’re feeling when presented with said stimuli, Cal could tell whether a person was lying.
After some clever manipulation with the real facts in his head, he quickly got the answers he was looking for.
Incidentally, in my humble opinion, while the show had the greatest premise imaginable, Cal tended to be a character that really didn’t endure much in the way of personal suffering. It was a show that hung on one main character, and doing this can be risky for any series, no matter the medium. Cal also never had a regular arch-nemesis who pushed his abilities to their limits. He always came out the victor. He always had a warm little moment with his daughter Emily at the end of each episode. It was nice and sweet but people don’t take in thrilling dramas for nice, sweet moments.
They watch feel-good movies and chick flicks for that stuff.
As an aspiring novelist, one thing Lie to Me made me think of is the issue of Showing vs. Telling. Briefly, this occurs when an author explains too much of what is happening to a character, and doesn’t really help the reader experience what the character is feeling, thus creating too great a distance.
What Cal Lightman did, as a face reader, is something not a lot of us civilians are too good at, even though we’d all like to think we are when we watch movies or TV shows.
Thing is, when we watch a story unfold on any kind of screen, we don’t tend to have that in-depth running view of the characters’ inner monologues. When we watch, it’s not like 1984 where these handy little screens exist to show what characters are thinking. We’re pretty much forced to judge others the same as Cal Lightman does because, in essence, that’s all we have to judge about this or that character.
In that case, what we see is far more important. The physical aspects that we observe make more of an impact, and are sometimes easier to portray, than in writing. Something as small as a finger twitch is really easy for an actor to pull off, and directors to tell camerapeople to shoot, however describing it in words beyond simply “his finger twitched,” and making it sound in any way relevant and important enough to mention, may be much harder. That finger twitch on a page might be a key detail, and get so buried among other details that it ends up getting lost, and as I discussed in previous posts, making a situation easy to grasp can sometimes maintain its interest level.
On the other hand, when we write, it’s far easier to show what’s going on inside a person’s head in real time. I mean, isn’t that how reading works?
A writer is basically giving readers the words to use to create images and situations in their imaginations. Fundamentally speaking, audiences can all do this on their own without books. Books just make it easier because they don’t need to compose the words themselves. Thus, reading a book is a lot like the instruction manual that tells us what to think to experience great tales, and when that instruction manual is the exact thoughts a character is thinking? Even better!
Circumstances are unfolding, a situation becomes deeper and more challenging, and depending on the perspective an author is writing from, we can watch the inner monologue of a character change as things are happening in the moment! Especially from a first person perspective, I can watch a character’s mindset grow and change and evolve from the beginning of the story to the end.
I can see a character be angsty and whiny in one part of a book, and their inner monologue show a confident, powerful being by the end because of the circumstances they endure. Sure, they can act different between the beginning and end, but I want to know something about the characters that we ask about everyone we know in real life.
“What makes you tick?” Quite honestly, people…that’s why I’ve read books in the past.
If I want to see people doing things and examine every aspect of their movements, gestures and externally displayed emotions, I’ll watch a movie or TV show, because I can actually SEE the characters in question. If I don’t want my experience complicated by inner monologues, but I want to battle and work hard to bring a character to the end of a journey, I’ll play a video game. These are media that are primarily action and dialogue, with a hint of Cal Lightman-esque face and body reading.
If I want to know what’s going on inside characters’ heads, I’ll pick up a book.
The idea and premise behind “Showing Over Telling” is that a reader should be able to envision what a character is physically doing so that they can let their imaginations examine a person’s behavior. And although I don’t disagree with that (I was informed recently that a WIP of mine does this and agree 100% that I’ve done it a bit too often in the past), I’m inclined to believe, at least when it comes to stories written in first person, that the medium of writing isn’t quite being used properly or even to its fullest potential when too much action, and not enough internal thought processes, are described.
Writing in a third person perspective feels different, as the omniscience of the nameless, faceless, identity-less narrator hovers over the characters. It mainly shows the personality of the author by occasionally peeking into specific characters’ minds at specific times to show the reader key pieces of information. However, it’s my belief that when writing in first person, it’s far more fun and engaging to experience thoughts as a character is having them, than just having that character describe everything they’re doing.
I think that’s the thing that creates the most distance with that particular perspective, because no one in their right mind goes about their day, thinking out and describing everything they’re doing as they doing them. Whether we’re busy as bees at work, grocery shopping, cleaning the house, straightening up our respective areas, visiting family, hanging out with friends, having a fist fight, etc., we’re having thoughts. We’re thinking to ourselves, making internal judgments, silently preening or cutting others down, whatever.
Think of it this way…when a person has self-esteem issues and sees a therapist, they’re occasionally told to look at themselves in a mirror and speak to themselves over and over, saying things like “I’m beautiful,” “I’m important,” “I’m attractive,” and other positive descriptions, the logic being that by repeating (and even merely vocalizing) these things to oneself, eventually one begins to believe.
Writing in first person can be the same way.
The temptation for a reader is to fit oneself into a character’s shoes and what better way to do that than to verbalize the thoughts of a character on the page. Obviously, every character can’t be relatable to every single reader, and not every reader needs to feel they relate entirely to a character in order to enjoy the fantasy.
It’s all a matter of an author presenting readers with characters that have interesting enough ideas and thoughts, characters that take away some insightful lessons from their circumstances. In some cases, showing can be less important than telling, and in other cases, telling can ruin things.
It’s said that as authors, we need to have confidence in our work. But always remember to take what you say on paper with a grain of salt, at least at first. Once you’ve thought it through, let the confidence flow freely.