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Show me…

May 21, 2013

Yes that old chestnut. For those of you who know me via twitter, you’ll be aware that I’m keen on the whole show-not-tell concept. Is this because I am a master of that particular craft, keen to impart my superior knowledge to the world of up and coming writers? Or is it a thinly veiled complex, a reflection of something I am forever trying to perfect in my own work? Yes, indeed, I suspect it’s the latter.

However, as they say, you learn 10% of what you read, 20% of what you hear, and 90% of what you teach others. (Disclaimer – these figures are made up, but it goes something like that. Google it if you can be bothered). Anyway, if I try to spew out whatever I learn here in my blog, then fingers crossed it will sink into my stubborn brain a little deeper. So if you’re reading this, I’m afraid you’re sort of…a subject, someone I am using to my own selfish ends. But – you don’t have to read it, so you have the right to ignore me. Hello..? Is anybody there? Thought not.

Um, so where was I. Yes, I recently tweeted a quote from the revered Anton Chekhov that goes: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

Unfortunately I am not Chekhov, which means that it takes me four paragraphs and counting to say what he manages in sixteen words. But nonetheless, my latest discovery, which for what it’s worth I will share in the hope that I can better remember it.

I’m currently reading the Clifton Chronicles by Jeffrey Archer, and while Archer may not be Chekhov, what he does know how to do is tell a story and enrich it with some of the most compelling characters you’ll find on the pages of fiction. I’ve read the first two books of what I think will be a trilogy, and tried to peruse them with a students eye. So what have I learnt?

A great way to develop a character! How do you show that someone is evil or heroic or cowardly or whatever, without coming out and saying it? Well first of all you can just describe their actions. Or their reactions. An evil person might idly pull the wings off a fly. An evil genius might pull a leg off an ant and record how much ground it covers in an hour versus one with all six legs. That kind of thing is blatant though and often becomes tasteless (see aforementioned example).

One thing Archer employs is his secondary characters, the minor players who flit in and out of scenes. A secretary who defers to the villain, a board member who always uses said villains title, and never his name, retaining his professional composure even when snapped at. An employee who knocks timidly on villain’s office door, pokes their head around it cautiously and the scurries off once the message is delivered.

In this way, Archer shows his readers exactly what kind of character we are dealing with, without them even doing anything, and saying very little.

An effective tool I think?


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