We authors in the 21st century write in a time when readers, trained by movies and television, expect a visual experience from our books. Of course, all the gurus say “show, don’t tell.” That sounds simple … just make the characters do something that readers can visualize … but we authors know it’s really not as simple as it sounds. There are a myriad of choices we must make to “show” rather than “tell” a scene. How do we creat a visual scene that our readers can “watch” as they read? If you’re like me, “show” is just too vague of an instruction. There must be some ways to transfer the clearly enacted scene in my mind to the page in a way that will come across with the emotional impact I intend.
It would be so much easier if we could just say “the character is feeling this”, but that’s telling not showing, so we go through these scene construction contortions designed to show our character in action, reacting to the environmental stimuli that make them feel, hoping that our readers will clue into what the character is feeling. I’ve read a lot of books that missed this mark. Why?
I think it has something to do with focusing too much on the overall plot and not enough on the plot in each scene. Think about a movie. A director creates a scene through a compilationg of segments or pieces. A collection of camera shots are subsequently edited and pieced together to create a seamless “moment in time.”
My son and I were watching “High Noon” a while ago and it got me to thinking about this concept and how novel writers could learn from screen writers and directors. That’s a movie that plays with time in an extremely successful way. I recommend you watch it sometime. Yes, it was made in the 1950s, but no, it’s not just some old relic that we can leave in a vault. The techniques used in it to speed time u and slow it down can translate into our writing and make it more visual and therefore, more readable to a modern audience.
Our stories are told over periods of time. I’ve read novels that encompassed a couple of hours and others that covered decades. Pacing so as to create a smooth passage of time is essential for the reader to follow the story, but I’m suggesting you can manipulate time to evoke an emotional response.
Often during crisis, time feels muddled and hazy. If you’ve ever witnessed an accident … say, a car crash … you may remember that time seemed to stop until you could catch up to it. It doesn’t just slow down. It acquires this bright, highly detailed feeling. And generally, that is how you remember it.
For example, when I was in high school, I saw a little kid hit by a car. I remember that I saw the kid break away from his dad out of the corner of my eye just as a truck came into view. The kid ended up under the truck. The dad grabbed the kid, the driver expressed horror and offered a ride to the hospital and they took off. I remembered to breathe as my heart pounded in terror for the little kid.
Okay, you pretty much know the details and I made it clear that I was terrified. I could have done so much better.
I could have slowed things down, described the child as I saw him out of the corner of my eye. I could have described the truck as it came into view and the face of the driver as he realized there was no way to stop in time. I could describe the screech of the brakes as he tried. This gives the scene so much more power than a simple retelling of the facts.
In my latest work-in-progress, What If … Wasn’t, my character is processing old and painful memories. These are not just fleeting thoughts in his mind. They are all encompassing experiences that he feels in the present as well as in the past. I could say something like “Peter sat there thinking about that night on the bay for at least 20 minutes” but that doesn’t really pull the reader into the scene. Instead, I try to make the reader feel the passage of time by focusing on details you wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention to. By having my character notice something seemingly insignificant, I try to show that his inner awareness is shifting. By noticing things around him, details that are small and easily missed, which nobody else would pay attention to, I very deliberately shift the quality of time.
When we look back on the reel of our lives, there are moments that seem marvelously alive while others seem insulated and unresponsive to the world around us. There are no set rules for how to accomplish this as writers. By having your characters slow down and notice the small things, thus slowing down time, you can explore how she feels in that moment and provide a visual element to your writing that draw your readers into your character’s experience.