By Page 18, I knew I needed to own my own copy of Showing & Telling by Laurie Alberts, a writing book arguing that we need both vibrant scenes and effective, efficient summaries to carry a story along. By Page 37, she had me thinking about aspects of some of my own scenes, and by the middle of the book, I was dazzled and bordering on despair.
Ms. Alberts does a great job scrutinizing what a scene can do and examining its elements—dialogue, dialect, detail, setting, exposition, conflict, tone, mood, tense, transitions—explaining what works and what doesn’t. And she doesn’t give you rules to follow. She gives you examples that show how many tools you have, as a writer, and how almost anything can work well if matched to the right story and author-intention.
Throughout the work, she urges writers to make every word and scene count, and her book is a great antidote to many writer problems, like over-showing, over-telling, using weak similes, and leaving minor characters undeveloped.
But by showing the power possible in scenes, the book can also be discouraging. How can you write a single scene, knowing how much is at stake? Every scene is supposed to further the theme, and the plot, showing emotional movement and containing clever analogies and engaging dialogue and yet, the writer has to write it, when she hasn’t been published, the weather is gloomy, and the day job is monotony incarnate. Or the writer still has to write, when the words aren’t coming, the bills are piling up, and he hasn’t heard anything positive from the agents he’s currently querying. (And to top it all, he’s struggling with grammar and a bit of a cold.)
Still, I think it’s a great work to read. Just read it slowly, a nibble at a time, and remember, the making of great novels doesn’t lie in the writing, but the rewriting. That’s when you get to take a mediocre scene from awful to awesome. As Ms. Alberts writes, “You’ll be surprised at what results if you don’t judge and just let the words come.” Getting the words on the page is the first step. The rest will come, but it can never happen without a beginning, the awful first draft upon which all masterpieces are made.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren Photo courtesy of Gratisography