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Show Your Work

If your math classes were anything like mine, there was one golden rule:  You had to show your work.  When ferreting out the value of x, you couldn't just slap the answer on the page--you had to show each painstaking step of stripping the equation down to the answer.  And sometimes this took line upon college-ruled line.

OK, so math homework could be a little anal.  What does this have to do with writing?

Quite a bit, I'm finding.  I keep reminding myself as I write and revise my current project that I need to show my work to my reader--that the reader doesn't know anything unless I tell them or lead them to discover it.

Writing a story is kind of like knowing the answer to a math problem already.  You know your characters, the plot (well, most of it, anyway...), the conflicts, the ending.  You know the details--why Susan is shy around strangers, why Bob is afraid of spiders, why no one can see the ghost in the attic except for Aunt Bessie.  Some of those details you keep deliberately hidden, of course--that's part of storytelling.  But most details aren't hidden surprises--they're meant to be shared.

Have you ever read a published book or a friend's draft (or, when you're being honest, your own) and been totally thrown by a character's reaction to something?  Or wondered why in the world a character is so prickly about certain topics?  Or just had no idea what to expect out of a character's reaction at any given juncture? When these kinds of reactions aren't meant to surprise us, they take us out of the story in a negative way.  And they're usually the result of the author not showing his or her work.  We need some piece of backstory or some hint at the character's quirks or personality that will explain this odd reaction.  Then, suddenly, what was a weird moment becomes a completely in-character and revealing moment, all because the author showed his or her work.

Even more common--have you ever read a book or draft with a character who's just...blah?  Nothing too exciting, nothing too interesting.  Just plain Jane nothing doing blah.  Now, ten to one the author didn't intend to write a beige character--in his or her head, the character is vibrant scarlet or deep purple or chipper, cheerful yellow.  When the author doesn't show his or her work, the reader doesn't see it.  You have to show the character to the reader--reveal the nuances of how he or she interacts, behaves, reacts, to paint a full and colorful picture.  Otherwise we're left with beige.  I admit, this is a big challenge for me--I see the characters in my mind, I know them, they're awesome.  But I have to find ways of expressing that awesomeness on the page--finding outlets for details and reactions to share what I know with the reader.

The same goes for plot.  If the reader isn't invited along to explore the mystery, or to see the impossibility of climbing the mountain, or to really understand just how much Betty loves Timmy, the story falls flat.  You have to show your work to build up a conflict--the reader can't be expected to assume it's there.  You have to spell things out sometimes--not because your reader is dumb, but because he doesn't live in your head with  you (we hope).

So--take a lesson from algebra and show your work.

Is this as challenging for you as it is for me?  What's your biggest hurdle in showing your work?

Comments

  1. Great post! For me, I always refine too close to the bone. I try to cut out all the fat and often leave what to me seems like the imperative part. But knowing the plot myself, it's hard to see what fellow readers might WANT to see in a story. What to me seems like fat is for them the depth. I think it's important not to edit out so much we leave only the bones. :)

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