Read Me Shrugging

I’ve got a master’s degree in speech communication with an emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion. Basically, this means I spent a lot of time and money learning how to analyze you while you’re talking and figure out the best way to warp you into doing what I want. What can I say, my college offered a degree in functional supervillainy and I took ’em up on it. Although, if I were to be truthful, I’d have to admit I had no idea what to study and the communication department gave me a scholarship for speech and debate, so why not speech comm?

Oddly, it’s proven to be a useful degree, largely due to the supervillain-level tips and tactics for interaction and manipulation. So, if you’re still trying to figure out what you want to study, it’s a good degree to have because even though I’m a programmer and author, I still deal with people regularly and getting an understanding of how they communicate has been a nice tool to have.

It’s been said, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it”. People pay far more attention to the nonverbal cues than you’d think. The way a person stands or how much eye contact they give or whether they’re wringing their hands can tell you volumes more than what they’re actually saying. Those nonverbal cues can also completely override the verbal message or at least drastically change its meaning. I’ve told people no one likes them and since I had a smile on my face at the time, they thought I was joking and we were now best buddies. Narrator Voice: No one, in fact, liked that person.

That’s our good buddy nonverbal communication coming to visit. And the people who like point out how something was said are absolutely correct to make note of that. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 70% and 93% of communication is nonverbal. I’m not sure how anyone arrived at these numbers – especially the strangely precise 93% – but there are people who get paid to study these things and I don’t really have any good reason to doubt them. Maybe I could find a YouTube video put out by some huckster that supports my viewpoint, but I’m lazy and most of the hucksters on YouTube are busy putting out videos trying to prove Covid is a liberal hoax and Donald Trump won the election. When you’re working that hard to promote that level of complete bullshit, there’s very little time left to conquer nonverbal communication statistics. That and, frankly, no one cares that nonverbal communication is a Chinese hoax perpetrated by the liberals to, uh, do stuff. Bad stuff. Very, very bad stuff. Trust us, we have mountains of evidence.

So, non-existing propaganda aside, we send a huge amount of communication through our nonverbal channels. The cock of the head, a wink, a raised eyebrow, a subtle cough, a red face, a finger shaking with rage. These things color the verbal message and, in many cases, completely override the verbal message. Image a man, red faced and shaking, his right eye twitching and he stabs his finger in your face over and over while yelling, “YES! I AGREE WITH YOU! FRIED OREOS ARE GREAT!” Narrator Voice: Fried Oreos are, in fact, great.

The verbal message is one of total agreement: Fried Oreos are great. Taken on its own, this describes a person who you could probably hang out with, happily munching on fried Oreos until the saturated fats clogged your arteries and shut down your hearts. Maybe in the afterlife fried Oreos will be waiting for you. Unless you wind up the bad afterlife where all you have fried knock-off Oreos that are far inferior to the real thing and you have to enjoy them while discussing the finer points of international banking with doddering idiot who keeps stealing all the cookies for himself.

Put yourself in the position and think about what you’re seeing. That verbal message about the Oreos will be completely overridden by the angry guy stabbing his finger at you. The takeaway is he’s pissed as hell and is right on the edge of going physical with it. He could be shouting nonsense. “MAN! WOMAN! PERSON! TV! CAMERA!” and it wouldn’t matter one bit because the part you’re going to focus on is whether or not it’s a good idea to just drop that fool right then and there before things get out of hand.

Nonverbal communication is the ultimate representation of that age-old writing adage of “show, don’t tell” because no one is going to shout “I’m very angry right now” without getting laughed at. And, let’s face it, stating the obvious is major boring shit. For instance:

  • “I agree with you! Fried Oreos are great!” he shouted angrily.
  • He was angry. “I agree with you! Fried Oreos are great!”

Booorrring.

But let’s toss our good buddy nonverbal communication into the mix:

Jacob’s finger shook inches away from my nose. His eyes, beady under the best of circumstances, twitched and pirouetted above his beet-red face. Sunlight danced on the flecks of spittle erupting from his mouth. “I agree with you! Fried Oreos are great!”

The takeaway? Never once mentioned anger or rage, but it’s obvious from the context. Jacob agrees with me, but he hates himself for it. And let me just say, self-loathing is an apt feeling after a couple of deep-fried Oreos.

Nonverbal cues aren’t rocket surgery to write. Some things – cadence, for instance – can be tough to put into words, but describing what an angry person or lust-filled Medusa or even nervous people who’ve been tapped to have sex with lust-filled Medusas is easy. Watch people for a while. Next time you’re in a conversation pay close, conscious attention to what their body is doing while they talk to you. Some people have grandiose hand gestures that come out when they’re excited. Others scrunch into a little ball and mumble when called on in Zoom meetings. Some people pound tables, others click ballpoint pens frantically. Everyone has a tick, all you have to do is remember it and apply it to a character.

Or you could just, you know, state the obvious, he said, sad that no one paid attention.

Comments, as always, are welcome and appreciated. Especially if they come with fried Oreos. Narrator Voice: Please do not send fried Oreos.

When Is It Enough? Showing and Telling and All That Jazz.

the Witch, on Twitter, asked a very interesting question: At what point have you done enought showing? Or telling for that matter? When, for the love of all that’s holy, is it done?

Everyone knows the story is done when it’s done. It may not seem obvious in the beginning when a story will be finished, but as you progress down the road of writing it you’ll soon realize there’s a central conflict (renegade necromancer out to destroy everything because she’s pissed as hell) and perhaps some side issues (vampire with similar problems, but wanting to take over her people instead of wrecking the city) that the protagonist (gun-toting badass with a drinking problem who really just wants to be left alone) has to deal with. Once the primary conflict is wrapped up and the side conflict gets taken care of, the story is done. The denoument should tie all the parts together, slap a bow on it, and call it good. We don’t have to worry about what comes next; that’s stuff for the sequel.

The plot is a necessity, but it’s in the midst of the story is where the magic happens. That’s where you show all of the things that led us to this point and give readers insight into the why as well as the how. So, you could sum up my latest work in progress using the descriptions above and you’d have the basic plot of a book that still doesn’t have a freakin’ title because I can’t think of one even though it’s nearly half written. You could even summarize the ending by saying “Bullets with a side of throat ripping”, but four disconnected phrases does not a book make. Why and how are important. So is building the world the characters live in. Those are the places to spend your time. On the plus side, you could use those disconnected sentences to come up with a half-decent blurb.

In a city where life is cheap, someone is leaving corpses that won’t stay dead. There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s happening, but Ace Colton’s recently deceased on-again-off-again girlfriend just tried to introduce him to the business end of a knife. At her funeral, a vampire finds him and explains that she made a promise to protect him. While everything implodes around them, they’ll make their way through a city where vampires and magic are real, leaders are fighting to imprison every last magical thing, and regular humans are pawns in a deadly game that could decide the fate of a world.

Okay, so it’s not perfect. Sue me. It’s a first cut.

Anyway, back to the magic of the story. What makes a story engaging starts with the plot. If it’s a tale of some doof brushing his teeth, no ones going to care, unless it’s some avant-garde house movie where the audience can convince themselves they saw something that wasn’t there and look down their noses at everyone who missed it. Get a decent plot, make some memorable characters, throw in some sex with a vampire, and don’t be afraid to unleash a bunch of hot lead. That should be enough of a hook to get people interested.

It’s the world of the book that will keep people interested. I wrote a post a while back about why I thought writing urban fantasy was harder than regular fantasy because you have to make all the weird shit seem natural when it’s dropped into a mundane setting like Albuquerque, New Mexico or Tijuana, Regular Mexico. The world building requires more effort because you have to shoehorn in fantasy elements and make them seem like they belong there. And that requires description.

Which, finally, takes us back to The Witch’s original question: When have you shown enough? There’s actually an easy answer to that, but it’s not the easiest thing to understand. It’s done when it’s done. Let’s say I’m describing magazines on a coffee table in a weird sorcerer dude’s house:

The table was covered with half-formed rings of spilled coffee, the kind of thing you only see with people who either drink too much coffee or don’t give a shit about cleaning up anymore. In the middle, staring up from a leaning pile of crusty, dog-eared, and tattered “Big Butts” magazines, a girl in a bikini looked over her shoulder, shoving her ass into the camera. Someone had drawn an eye patch and a fake scar on her face with a cheap ballpoint pen and the ink was smeared from recent use. On the corner of the table, neatly aligned and staring at me with a smirk on its face, was a pristine copy of Jane’s Defense Weekly with a cover depicting the latest in the military application of magical weapons.

There’s a lot of information built into that paragraph, even if it’s not obvious. That’s what I like to call information density. You don’t have to have spell out every little thing to have the world building work, and you definitely don’t have to tell the reader what you want them to realize. That’s showing in a nutshell.

You’re trying to accomplish a few things with world building:

  • Describing the world (duh)
  • Laying out the important points
  • Fleshing out a character

The trick to it is figuring out the important points and that’s the key to understanding The Witch’s question. What’s important? What does the reader need to know to understand where this madcap tale of guns and sorcery is heading? That is something only the author can answer. If your book is about a half-assed sorcerer who’s never done anything important with his life and is catching shit from his parents and the general world around him, the description of a coffee table shed a lot of light on both him and his world. We know:

  • He’s probably an obsessive coffee drinker and that makes his hands shaky
  • He likes to punch the bishop on the couch.
  • The world not only has magic in it, but someone’s working to weaponize it.
  • Our sorcerer has a thing for degrading women and possibly mutliating them.
  • He likes big butts and he cannot lie.

While some other brothers might deny, our sorcerer dude is probably a messed up individual on track to get himself and everyone else in a lot of trouble. If that’s the description of the character you’re going for, you’re good to go. If not, replace the magazines or clean up the coffee table. Or whatever. Just realize when to stop. The table might also have a half-empty box of Kleenex, or a cold mug of coffee, or any number of other things. He might also have a half-empty box of ‘Nilla Wafers in the cabinet and some Chinese noodles in the trash, but you don’t need to say that. In the case of the Kleenex and the cold coffee, we already know he likes coffee and boxing the clown on the sofa, you don’t need to hammer the point home – no pun intended. In the case of the ‘Nilla Wafers and Chinese noodles, who cares? All we know is he likes vanilla wafers and Chinese food and everyone like vanilla wafers and Chinese food. It’s junk information just like saying he owns a pair of pants or breathes air.

All the information in our world building needs to have a valid reason for being there. It needs to describe a character and how they’re different or what their motivations might be, explain some aspect of a world that’s not what’s expected in our world, or leave clues and reasons for plot points that will happen later on. If it doesn’t fall into one of those categories or doesn’t help breath life into a world, let it go. And if you’ve already shown it, there’s not much reason to beat that dead horse some more (also no pun intended). Leave some space for the action that drives the story forward and don’t overload the reader with details that aren’t important. Bored readers put down books and that’s not what we’re shooting for here.

So, to answer The Witch’s question: The showing and telling are done when they’re done. And they’re done when the pertinent information has been presented. Everything else is icing and remember, while sitting on the couch with a jar of chocolate mocha icing and a spoon sounds like a good idea, it gets old pretty quickly.

One final thought on world building: Realize we learned an awful lot about a character from describing his coffee table. Not all character building is obvious.

Follow The Witch on Twitter. She’s worth your time.

Information Density

Information density refers to putting more information into a single statement than is readily obvious. Think of it as a process of layering key pieces of a story on top of, or underneath, other things that are happening. Oftentimes it gets revealed through dialog, but there are other ways to accomplish it.

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably heard someone say, “Show, don’t tell.” In fact, you’ve probably heard it enough that it makes you want to strangle a manatee in the nude every time someone says it.

It’s a bit of cryptic phrase. This is, after all, writing we’re talking about, not cinema; showing stuff in prose seems like the antithesis of telling a story. I’ll admit, I struggled with getting my head wrapped around it. But, like all things, once you come at it sideways, it makes a bit more sense. The path to understanding was a long, strange trip, but I finally had an epiphany that made it click into place.

Supposedly, Anton Chekhov once wrote “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”.

This is all about scene building and adding poetic license to the grim details of monkey knife fighting in dimly lit alleys surrounded by drunken, toothless rabble chanting broken prayers to empty gods. Imaging the scene in your head. Freeze the frame. See the guy with the eye patch and his fist raised in the air. He’s screaming, lost in the ecstasy of the moment while the woman in the tiny dress leaning on his arm is staring at her phone. She’s focused on a single text and smirking.

The monkey on the right is in the air, about to ram a narrow gleaming dagger into the skull of a gray and black beast with wide eyes and his arms crossed in front of his face.

Now, read between the lines and see what’s lurking in there. The guy with the eye patch bet on the monkey that’s about to kill. He’s happy because he’s gonna get some soda water money. His girl has someone else on the side, someone she’d rather be with. The monkey about to get stabbed knows exactly what’s about to happen because he’s done it to others before.

That’s information density. That’s showing not telling. In a nutshell, you don’t have to be explicit about every little thing. Let the reader make up their own mind about the detail. Give them just enough extra information beyond the scene taking place that they can fill in the details.

The first thing to understand about showing not telling is it doesn’t have to all-encompassing. There are plenty of places where simply saying, “The damned light was blue” is all it takes and there’s no hidden information you need to divulge beyond the blueness of the light.

So, how about some examples?

In 1986, Aliens was released. Some people will disagree, but I still think it was the best in the series and set the tone for everything that came after it. If you’ve ever read the novelization, one of the things that gets brought up is how the aliens are showing signs of growing intelligence, probably due to the age of the hive. In Alien, the critter wasn’t too bright. It was in pure survival mode and, of course, hopelessly outclassed its prey so it didn’t have to be too smart. In Aliens there was more at stake, there was a hive and a queen and relative safety and the aliens had the luxury of moving beyond pure survival.

Even though the movie never explicitly states this, it hints at it in two places. The first is the fact that aliens found a way around all the locked doors and security and generally showed they had an intellect beyond pure animal instinct.

The other place, and the one that should have stayed in the final cut, was more obvious. Unfortunately, you’ll have to scrounge up the director’s cut to see it. In that cut, there’s a scene where the marines set up automated sentry guns. The first gun runs out of ammo and the aliens overrun it with pure numbers. The second gun, however, stops firing before it runs out of ammo. The aliens recognized the threat and retreated to find another way around. That way turned out to be crawling through the ceiling and dropping on their unsuspecting prey. Clever bugs.

Again, information density. Even though both scenes moved the story along and were pretty damned fun to boot, there was another layer that wasn’t as obvious. Even though that layer didn’t necessarily serve to push the plot along, it added something important to the characterization of the antagonists and also ramped up the tension. Now the marines weren’t just fighting a horde of killing machines, they were fighting a horde of smart killing machines.

In the beginning of this post, I alluded to the fact that information density is often revealed through dialog. Imagine a character with a recurring drinking problem. He’s trying to get his shit together, but has a long and storied history with alcohol. At various points in the past, he’s gone so far into the arms of mother booze that he’s made up crazy stories. You could spend a paragraph or so detailing his many times on and off the wagon, or you could hit in one line.

“Are you back on the sauce again, Colton, because that story doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

Your readers are smart. They don’t need everything spelled out for them. Don’t just let their imaginations soar, encourage it.

Got any other tips, drop ’em in the comments. I love comments.

Show Me The Stuff

Here’s an interesting factoid for you: The cast of the original Star Trek were among the last actors that were trained by picture. Apparently, when they were learning to act, part of their training consisted of showing them pictures of people doing particular faces to represent various emotions. This is what a scared person looks like. This is what a happy person looks like. So on and so forth.

Better than his Spocked face.

In a way, it makes a certain kind of sense. As a TV actor, part of the job is making sure the audience understands what’s going on. If you make a particular face, everyone knows you’re shocked. Then we don’t have to expend additional energy trying to decide who’s shocked, who’s got ennui, and who’s blasé about about life; we can focus on the antics of Spock and Bones.

What does all this have to do with price of tea in China? Funny you should ask. But first, allow me to digress.

Back when I was still teaching Kenpo, I learned more teaching than I did learning. The reason was I had to not only be able to teach the techniques as I learned them, but be able to explain why the technique worked. It required an in-depth understanding to do it well.

Editing can change things.

Editing a book is kind of like teaching. It forces you to look at things differently. While I’m editing someone’s book, I’m also mentally editing my own works and noting what works and what doesn’t work when I’m reading it instead of writing it.

I’ve recently been editing a book for some folks. While it’s not a bad book, there are a few things in there that had me scratching my head and a few things that could really be expanded. In the writing world, we love to say “show, don’t tell.” The things that needed expanded fell into the “show, don’t tell” category. It wasn’t that they were bad lines, they just needed some expansion.

I’m not going to reproduce their lines here. Like I said, they’re not bad lines. But you see bad lines all the time. Little throw-away lines that would be easy to turn from bland to interesting.

Take this:

“I could tell she was upset.”

It’s a classic example of tell, not show. It’s also boring and feels half-assed. To make it interesting, look back to the way the original cast of Star Trek was trained and start asking question. How could I tell she was upset? Well, she looked upset. What does that look like? If you were to paint a picture of someone who was upset, what would it look like?

Steam always comes out of ears when people are upset. Seriously, watch a cartoon sometime.

That’s the essence of showing instead of telling.

An upset person can scowl, furrow their brow, snort, frown, grimace, narrow their eyes, glare, yell, blow steam out of their ears, and break things. Think about a person you’ve known and what he or she looked like when they were upset. Then write that.

Instead of “I could tell she was upset” how about:

“Her glare could peel the paint off a battleship. Those expressive brown eyes I love so much wouldn’t meet my gaze. She was completely focused on the bent spoon in her hand when she said, ‘I can’t believe you cheated at Street Fighter 2. I had that match and you know it’.”

Without ever saying “she’s upset” we know she’s upset. If in doubt, toss in a line about steam coming out of her ears.

Show it, don’t tell it.

Got any tips for showing instead of telling? Drop ’em in the comments and let the world see. In the interim, keep writing.