Saturday, April 28

Real Life Diagnostics: Show Me the Details: Showing in a Distant Third Person

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six

This week’s question:
Am I showing or telling in this passage?

Market/Genre: Adult mainstream with a philosophical/historic bent


On to the diagnosis… 

Original text:
Hiram guessed it was about 4:00 a.m. but he could get back to sleep. He took his position in front of the window on the second story overlooking the street as he had every day for the past 3 months, listless, as if a layer of skin had been ripped off his body and it could not move until it healed.

With sunrise the street commotion of the day began: the constant rhythmic clap of horse hooves on cobblestone beneath the shouts of cart drivers, the hubbub of people talking loudly above the background noise. The man in the stiff red wide brimmed hat came into sight. The two women dressed in black shuffled along to turn the corner and went who knows where as they did every morning; the young man in an imperial blue shirt, who must be a private messenger, rushed along. They were now friends who came by each morning soothing the trance like numbness.

By chance, after several hours, his meandering brought him to the Santo Spiritu library. He had not been there in over 4 years. At the sight of the building his restlessness lifted. Yes, a relaxing day reading might calm this inner discord.

Hiram requested a copy of a manuscript. He had barely begun to read when he sensed someone was staring at him. He glanced up at the smiling face of Gabriele.

Hiram froze. The situation was exactly the same: their first meeting, in this place, at this very table. The complete memory flashed in his mind. Old Leopoldo was at his desk, the young Angelique pirouetting for the amusement of her male audience. Why? An internal veil fell from his perception. I saw. His thoughts stammered as they rushed into his now brighter consciousness. I saw. I saw exactly what she was. How could I have forgotten?

My Thoughts in Purple:
Hiram guessed it was about 4:00 a.m. but he [could] could not? get back to sleep. He took his position in front of the window on the second story overlooking the street as he had every day for the past 3 months, listless, as if a layer of skin had been ripped off his body and it could not move until it healed.

With sunrise the street commotion of the day began: the constant rhythmic clap of horse hooves on cobblestone beneath the shouts of cart drivers, the hubbub of people talking loudly above the background noise. [The man] in the stiff red wide brimmed hat came into sight. [The two] women dressed in black shuffled along to turn the corner and went who knows where as they did every morning; [the young man] in an imperial blue shirt, who must be a private messenger, rushed along. [They were now friends] who came by each morning soothing the trance like numbness. It would be very easy for a descriptive passage like this to feel told or detached, but the use of "the" here shows that these words are the POV's words. He knows these people, they aren't just "a man" or "a woman." It's known information to him, which makes it feel like him seeing and reacting to this.

By chance, after several hours, [his meandering brought him to] This jarred me because I thought he was standing at the window, not walking around. It also feels a bit detached since it's outside looking down, not inside looking out the Santo Spiritu library. He had not been there in over 4 years. [At the sight of the building his restlessness lifted.] This feels a little told because there are no sensation that go with it. I'm told he's no longer restless. [Yes, a relaxing day reading might calm this inner discord.] This feels like his thoughts

Hiram requested a copy of a manuscript. [He had barely begun to read when he sensed someone was staring at him.] This could be shown more if the sensation of being stared at was described He glanced up at the smiling face of Gabriele.

Hiram froze. The situation was exactly the same: their first meeting, in this place, at this very table. The complete memory flashed in his mind. Old Leopoldo was at his desk, the young Angelique pirouetting for the amusement of her male audience. Why? An internal veil fell from his perception. I saw. His thoughts stammered as they rushed into his now brighter consciousness. I saw. I saw exactly what she was. How could I have forgotten?

The question:
Am I showing or telling in this passage?

For the most part showing, though there is one paragraph that feels more told than the others. One thing that plays a large role in how told something feels is the narrative distance of the POV character. The closer you are, the more shown is usually feels. The father away, the more told (generally speaking). It doesn't take much to shift from inside looking out to outside looking down, from character describing to author describing.

That's the difference between the first and second paragraphs. Paragraph one has the subtle POV clues that what we see belong to Hiram. Paragraph two takes that one extra step away and feels more like the author. "He had not been there" vs "he hadn't visited." Just like the subtly between "a" man and "the" man, it positions the words from what Hiram knows and thinks to what the author knows and tells. Without a solid grounding in the POV, it's harder to tell what's just information being told to the reader what Hiram himself sees and comments on. The line between them is fuzzier.

Because the POV feels more distant, any "on the fence" type sentences can feel more told than shown. For example:
His thoughts stammered as they rushed into his now brighter consciousness
This says what his thoughts are doing and telling the status of his consciousness. But it's really no different from, "my mind raced, and everything around me slowed down." It's how close the reader feels to the POV that makes it feel told vs shown here. (and why sometimes we feel like something feels told when it really isn't)

I'd suggest adding those judgment words whenever you sense a paragraph is starting to slip into author-information and away from Hiram's observations. If it seems like you're just stating a fact, see if there's any way to make it more personal to Hiram. More internalization almost always helps as well, as internal thoughts force the author to think how the POV would see something.

The more distant the point of view, the greater the sense of telling, even if it's not. It's that extra layer between reader and POV that makes it feel that way. The little reminders that the reader in indeed in the POV's head makes those "in between" statements feel more shown.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

6 comments:

  1. Janice, do you think being outside looking down is necessarily a bad thing? Or are you just demonstrating the relationship between POV and showing vs. telling? I've enjoyed a lot of stories that were written in a distant third person. Are agents and editors biased against that now?

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  2. Thanks for this post. The Real Life Diagnostics series has been very helpful to me. I especially like the advice to add judgment words to deepen the POV.

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  3. Great examples, as always, Janice. And it's nice to have you back.

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  4. Ken, no, it's not a bad thing. A far narrative distance is a legitimate style. A great distant third person book will get attention same as any other from agents and editors.

    One of the pitfalls of a distant narrator is the text sounding told. (This also happens to a tight first person, actually). You ARE telling the story and it's easy to lose the voice of the narrator and just explain what the author knows is there/happening/the reason.

    Personally, (and this isn't a rule or anything, just my taste) I've found the narrator's voice to be key in a distant narrator. If I feel like there's someone narrating the story the distance still makes me feel connected to the narrator. When the narrator is this aimless faceless director, it feels more told and I have a harder time connecting.

    Mark and Heather, thanks, it's good to be back.

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  5. Thanks Janice. I had rewritten this section as sent to you after coming across your blog and tried to incorporate the techniques you have explained for better showing and not telling. So you have helped me to fine-tune the method.

    Before starting to write I surveyed many books and blogs for the novice novelist but I found yours, especially this diagnostic feature, the most helpful by far!

    Yes, in the cutting and pasting I left out 2 sentences moving the stunned former lover from window to lane. Thanks for noticing it. They're back in.

    I feel your suggestion that the POV limited is preferable is correct. It allows the reader to more readily identify with the MC and hence increases interest.

    I hope you keep up this exceptionally good work!

    Jan

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  6. Jan, thanks, folks do seem to like it and I have fun doing them. I think examples are so much easier to learn from. Good luck with your revisions!

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