We often talk about subtlety and how you should harness the power of implication in your writing, but we haven’t really talked about HOW to do that. As I’ve often stated, technically all writing is “telling”. It’s just that some types of writing are less telling than others. It’s about what you tell and what you don’t. As an author, you want to be direct, without being overly direct. That’s clear as mud, isn’t it?
Think of it as a bit of literary sleight of hand. An author can direct their readers’ attention, and through that focusing of attention on revelatory action instead of telling narrative, you can allow your readers to make judgements about your characters motivations, emotions, and the direction of the plot. Revelatory action is action that reveals something important about a character, plot, or scene. In other words, if your character is an insensitive jerk, show him being that instead of telling the reader that is what he is. You want the character’s actions, emotions, expressions, etc. to say what you won’t. This is a time you want to let your character’s actions speak louder than your words.
This creates a scenario in which the readers become active participants in the story instead of passive bystanders. I’m a big fan of letting the chips fall where they may. This means you have to give up control because the way one reader may interpret what has been implied will not always be what you intended and it may not be in synch with what other readers see. And that’s the goal. Instead of having your writing and characters come off in a uniform manner, leave them open to interpretation. By doing so, you’ll have characters that transcend the box. Have the characters act and don’t explain why they are doing or feeling the way they do. After all, the readers should put some effort into connecting with the story.
I have a process for “showing” that I will share here. I hope this helps you when it comes to adding a bit of revelatory action to your scenes.
1. Pick a group of words that express your character’s emotions, motivations, personality, etc.
- e.g. Tom is: desperate, defensive, emotionally raw, prickly.
- e.g. Janice is: secretive, reticent, deceptive, insincerely nice.
2. Write your scene as you usually would.
3. Highlight your usage of the words (or related words) you wrote to describe your characters in step one
4. Replace the highlighted words with action that implies that emotion without stating it directly.
Once you get used to using revelatory action, you will do it automatically. You will approach every scene with the intent to show that which is important, but it takes a bit of practice. So let’s do that. 🙂
Exercise: Write the scene involving Tom and Janice using the emotions and character traits that are outlined above. Don’t use the keywords in your scene but rather use revelatory action to express those traits indirectly. Share your results with us below.