View Full Version : Addressing an isolated character: show vs tell
February 8th, 2006, 03:09 PM
I've been lurking on here for a while and have recently started work on a novel that I've had the idea for for a while now.
I have a question that somewhat relates to the oft-talked about "show vs. tell" but I have a definite twist that I'd like feedback on.
My story requires, as one of it's basic premises, that the main character be alone for almost the entire book. It revolves around a combination of factors that have essentially isolated this person from all contact with anyone. The book is basically a study of the human psyche when confronted with a highly abnormal situation.
Now, I understand "showing" and "telling" pretty well, but in my case I have no other characters to interact with, and very few spots for dialogue (other than the occassional inner dialogue). I don't want him to appear "crazy", always blabbering with himself, so what can I do? I don't want to sit there exposition-ing away forever either.
I've peppered the work so far with appropriate verbal comments as you might imagine would happen in reality, but for much of the book there will not be a need for him to "say" anything.
It would be unrealistic, odd and childish to do things like:
Rob saw a hammer on the floor. "I am going to pick up that hammer and use it, oh, to drive that nail!" he exclaimed. "Yes, it will be good to hammer for a bit."
No one would ever act that way, agreed?
Thanks for your thoughts.
February 8th, 2006, 04:02 PM
In the movie Castaway Tom Hank’s character talked to a volleyball…not sure if you want to go that route. Using dialogue to reveal character psyche is not absolutely necessary, although it usually makes it easier for the writer. Maybe try to manifest his feelings through physical actions and body language like in silent movies and cartoons, only not so overly exaggerated.
February 8th, 2006, 05:44 PM
1. Make the setting a character and go the sensual route. Let's say, for the sake of illustration, he's at home. What kind of curtains does he have. Are they drawn? If so, to keep the outside out, or keep him from looking/being distracted. What kind of sheets do the beds have? Does he still wear clothes? Shave? Are repairs necessary? (Are things inexpertly patched up?) See where I'm going? Lots of things you can show by simple interaction with the setting.
2. Go the memorie route (which involves more telling, if you don't want flashbacks). Trigger them by boredom, lonliness, unexpected events, features of the setting...
3. Let him have a vivid imagination. Show what's not there, what he can think of.
I'm sure there's plenty of methods I haven't mentioned.
Genre example I can think of straight away is Pat Murphy's short story: "Love and Sex among the Invertebrates", in which a sole survivor (at least in the area) of some apocalyptic event sees the world as being taken over by bugs. The story alternates between scientific treatments of the mating behaviour of various insects/scorpions/spiders, and accounts of how she makes sculptures out of garbage to represent said bugs, and how she imagines them to come alive.
February 8th, 2006, 05:54 PM
Totally cool idea.
You might want to look at the recent threads we've had on this topic, the "You're showing, not telling" thread and the link in it to the previous discussion thread. Plus, I'm sure the topic has come up frequently in other older threads.
Showing is sensory description, which is not purely dialogue and character interaction. If you say "Richard hammered the nail into the plank," that's showing. If you say "Richard hammered the nail into the plank like a wombat on steroids," you're both showing and telling. The character's inner thoughts and feeling are telling, but quite often that's going to be happening during scenes where the character is looking at something, or doing something, which is described, which is showing. So it's not really show vs. tell, it's show and tell.
In your case, you are not only describing the isolated landscape, but you're probably going to want to spend a fair amount of time having your character think about and analyze the isolated landscape. You aren't likely to be skimping on the character pov. Which means you don't have to be scared of having blocks of exposition. It will make it a whole lot more interesting for the readers to have the character's thoughts about his situation than if you only "showed" and just described the landscape and what the character does.
In the movie, Tom Hanks talked to a volleyball because it's a movie and they needed dialogue. The joy of written fiction is that you don't have to do that, because you can go internally into the character's mind. But, since humans don't deal with silence well, it would be natural if the character did frequently talk to himself. But when he talks out-loud, it doesn't have to be about what he's doing. It can be about what he's thinking. You can intermix his thoughts with what he says out-loud. Since he has his mind, as well, you can have him escape his situation mentally, remember past events as flashbacks with dialogue, etc.
You don't say whether you are working on a fantasy story or a sf one, but you might want to look at the first part of Walter Miller's "A Canticle for Leibowitz," which has a young monk on a hermitage mission, and Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles," parts of which deal with isolation. Peter S. Beagle's fantasy novel "The Last Unicorn," also has swaths with characters who are on their own. It can let you see how other folks have handled that sort of narrative.
There was also a really well-done sf story in Asimov's magazine back in 97 or 98 -- if I can find my box, I'll try to dig it up, -- about a woman astronaut in the future, stranded on the moon in a bad situation and she has to walk a large chunk of the moon to get to the sunlight and recharge her solar battery to gain enough time to be rescued, and she's out of contact with anybody for most of it. It was a good example of the type of thing you're trying. (If anybody remembers that story and who wrote it, I'd be grateful.)
February 8th, 2006, 06:18 PM
I just wanted to add that dialogue is not always external dialogue. Internal dialogue comes naturally for me when I write in first person - a little less naturally in third. Focussing on the interal dialogue should solve the problem.
The show vs. tell rule is, in my opinion, there to remind a writer to engage the reader in the experience of the fictional event, rather than just convey the information about what happened. The classical example is:
Robb was a bad person.
Every morning when Robb came downstairs he would kick the old dog to wake it up. Sometimes he just stomped on its tail or hoofed it in the gut. On the bad days, he took the time to put on his steel-toed boots.
Going back to your example using internal dialogue...
I could feel the rage burning inside me and I needed to let it out - somehow. I'm not the kind of guy to go around hitting things or shouting. It's not my style. I can't drown the rage in booze either - tried and failed too many times. I went to the tool box and pulled out my hammer - the one with the smooth sandlewood handle that still holds traces of my grandfather's sweat. I started nailing in the new planks on the deck, sometimes using five or six nails in a spot. With each nail the rage began to dissipate.
February 8th, 2006, 06:22 PM
Showing a character:
The university brochure declaimed at length of over the school of time, timekeeping, and timekeepers, advising interested parties to apply promptly as the course tends to fill at the last minute. It went on to explain everything he might want to know about the place but didn't. What he wanted was to talk to the woman of his nightmares. Every time he encountered former students, the inevitable response was that the department head, the object of his distraction, the students refer to her as The Living Horus, tends towards pedantry and philology. In crowds, people generally locate her by finding the person working the crossword puzzle as she drinks her coffee. Lacking the crowd, he recalled another approach oft recommended to him by younger students: her cell phone. “Text her,” they’d say; “she cannot resist reading the scrolling words. She’s saved every word she’s ever received.” Then, sometimes, a former student would add in utter amazement:“she remembers every line.”
February 8th, 2006, 07:21 PM
...There was also a really well-done sf story in Asimov's magazine back in 97 or 98 -- if I can find my box, I'll try to dig it up, -- about a woman astronaut in the future, stranded on the moon in a bad situation and she has to walk a large chunk of the moon to get to the sunlight and recharge her solar battery to gain enough time to be rescued, and she's out of contact with anybody for most of it. It was a good example of the type of thing you're trying. (If anybody remembers that story and who wrote it, I'd be grateful.)
I think it's Geoffrey Landis' A Walk in the Sun, featured in Asimov's October 1991 issue, page 110.
xMetal, you might also want to look at the movie "Soldier", where Kurt Russell spends the entire movie barely speaking.
I've been working on and off on a sf story where the main character is mute. To talk to the others, she uses mostly gestures and sign language, rarely writing.
This is very hard to write.
February 9th, 2006, 06:29 AM
If you say "Richard hammered the nail into the plank," that's showing.
I never addressed this in the other thread, but acutally, it's not that simple:
If the info you want to convey is that Richard hammered the nail into the plank, said sentence is actually telling. (Showing would entail breaking up the concept of "hammering the nail into the plank" into its component parts to create the impression of "hammering" without using the word.)
If the info you want to convey is that Richard is building a ... oh, I don't know, a boat? ... then it's showing.
You're always showing/telling something. And while abstract information ("he was sad" etc.) can never be showing, concrete information (said sentence) can sometimes be showing.
Basically, "show, don't tell" means that what's on the page should be the reader's conclusion and not pre-fabricated infromation. It doesn't always apply, and, sometimes, "show, don't tell" is a sign that the reader thinks that what's on the page is the point, when there's really another intended level the reader doesn't "get". The question the author then has to answer for himself is: is my real point unclear, or does the reader just not take to my style?
February 9th, 2006, 08:24 AM
wow, great feedback folks! I've got to read through all that in detail and put it to use.
The example of Cast Away is a great one, I can't believe I forgot that, as it's one of my favorite movies. You are right though, that in a movie you NEED dialogue, but in writing we can get away with a lot less. I'll keep that in mind. I think that so far (1 chapter) I've only got about 8 actual pieces of dialogue, so most of story progress so far has been driven through his actions.
The use of flashback is also a very good one, I can certainly make use of that once the story gets a little further underway.
The story is going to span only 5 days, but during that time some pretty dramatic psychological changes will take place, driving the character to pretty extreme behavior in the end. It's not exactly sci-fi or fantasy, really, but that's the core of what I generally read, hence my trusting this site for opinions. :)
In reading the examples here, I think I've got a pretty good balance so far. Lots to keep in mind though as I go on.
February 9th, 2006, 08:40 AM
But, since humans don't deal with silence well, it would be natural if the character did frequently talk to himself. But when he talks out-loud, it doesn't have to be about what he's doing. It can be about what he's thinking. You can intermix his thoughts with what he says out-loud.
Yes, this is precisely what I've been doing. I was just starting to worry that since I am trying to write this in a realistic fashion, the numbers of times you can do this without starting to seem queer is pretty small and limited, so I just wanted to make sure I wasn't totally off base in my assumptions.
(I was kind of thinking how I might act in a whole day at home by myself. I'd certainly think hundreds/thousands of thoughts but might verbalize only a handful).
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