Showing vs. Telling:
A writer’s guide
Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
“Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…” -Eudora Welty
My husband and I went to Connecticut a few years ago. One of my favorite TV shows at the time, The Gilmore Girls, was set in the small town of Stars Hollow. The highlight of my trip would be a pilgrimage to that town. It was, after all, just as important a character as Rory or Lorelei, and most of the time I liked the town better than the Gilmores.
It devastated me to learn that Stars Hollow didn’t exist, except on a Warner Brothers lot.
Setting can be a very powerful, integral part of any story. More than just a backdrop, the location can be a threatening antagonist or a stalwart friend. It can arouse feelings in us, love, terror, frustration.
Imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts:
DuMaurier’s Rebecca without Manderley:
Or Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See without Saint-Malo:
I wanted A Voice Among the Thorns to be set in a small Michigan town. I googled towns in southeastern Michigan, looking for the place that would be a fuzzy blanket for some of the characters, a stifling little pond for others and an escape from reality for another. As soon as I saw Rudds Mill, I knew I’d found my town. The fact that it disappeared long ago didn’t bother me. I’d create the town—geographical fiction, if you like. And the first place I imagined? Candy’s Coffee Shop, of course.
I was born in a hospital in Detroit and I’ve lived in its suburbs for most of my life. Although I love it here, there’s a dark thread running through the fabric of the area. Some call it racism. That’s not what I call it. Don’t get me wrong, racism exists. It’s rampant and it’s ugly. But there’s something else going on disguised as racism. And it’s distracting us from the real problem.
I was assaulted when I was in high school. I was lucky enough to get away before I was badly hurt. The neighbor I went to school with wasn’t so lucky. Driving home from work one evening, he was attacked in his car while stopped at a traffic light. I don’t remember how long he was hospitalized.
My best friend had her car window smashed out with a crowbar. That’s how they unlocked the doors. After a brutal sexual assault, they used the crowbar on her head. I went to the hospital soon after it happened. I remember her clothes and hair were covered with blood and shattered glass.
I vaguely remember other tragedies, but not enough to go into detail. A classmate’s older brother shot at a gas station. A friend mugged and beaten walking home from work.
More recently a good friend of my daughter’s was attacked. Her jaw was wired shut and her eye socket crushed. Healing and rehabilitation took months and many surgeries. Will the psychological wounds ever heal?
Earlier this year a clerk was shot in a local gas station in broad daylight. When two young boys went in to buy some pop, they discovered the body. My son and daughter happened to be driving by that gas station just as the police arrived.
Now let’s talk about another resident of the Detroit suburbs, Steven Utash, whom I’ve never met and many have never heard of. Utash, a 54 year-old-man weighing 155 pounds, accidentally hit a ten year-old boy with his truck. He got out of the truck to check on the boy, who was not seriously injured. Utash, on the other hand, was attacked by a mob of thirteen to twenty men. He was so severely injured that doctors put him in a medically induced coma for TEN days. The few men caught taking part in the bloody rampage will spend less time in jail than Utash will spend recuperating.
Now we’ll have a quiz of sorts. What color did you imagine the people you were reading about? Be honest with yourself. Nobody else will know your answer. Have you heard of Steven Utash? Michael Brown? Should the color of any single person mentioned above have any bearing on anything?
Here are the stats: With the exception of Michael Brown and the Middle Eastern gas station attendant, all of the victims were white. The guy who assaulted me was white. The rest of the attackers were black. This is not meant to imply all violence is done by one race of people, or that I condone violence against certain races. This is simply my experience.
We can allow ourselves to ask these questions: Where is the outrage for these innocent victims? What if the skin color had been reversed? What if Steven Utash was black and his assailants white? Or Michael Brown white and the police officer black?
But that’s focusing on the wrong issue.
The problem here isn’t black or white. It’s violence. It’s crime and punishment.
I offer you the truth about Cinderella.
Cinderella’s father was a weak, shallow man who gave into his young daughter’s every whim, avoiding confrontation and discipline at all costs. Cinderella’s fits of rage at being refused anything were legendary throughout the near countryside. Her mother was the only person courageous enough to use the phrase, “No, you may not.” with her. Although the tantrums, screamings and tears were trying, Cinderella’s mother did not fear them.
Her mother died and Cinderella became more difficult. Her father realized he could not control her. Leaving Cinderella in the care of the servants, he traveled the far countryside in search of a new wife. There was not a woman in the near countryside who would have him.
In no hurry to return to his enfant terrible, he wooed every woman unfortunate enough to cross his path. In the course of his meanderings, he happened upon a widow with two well-behaved daughters. He pursued her, hoping she could tame Cinderella. His dash and charm soon won the widow over and he insisted they marry without delay. The widow, hoping to include his daughter in the merry festivities, wanted to postpone the nuptials until Cinderella could be sent for. However, fearful the widow would change her mind after meeting Cinderella, he insisted upon haste. They married, and with her two daughters journeyed to his home.
Whisperings among the townsfolk began soon after their arrival. The father, maintaining he must be about managing the estate, was rarely at the manor. The stepmother was left with the care of her wayward stepdaughter. She would not treat Cinderella differently than her own daughters, nor would she tolerate Cinderella’s behavior. Rumor had it that Cinderella had finally been made to comb her hair, say “Please” and “Thank you”, and clean her room (she only allowed servants in to serve her breakfast in bed).
When she turned sixteen, the battle between Cinderella and her stepmother began in earnest. Soon the countryside near and far was abuzz with the goings-on concerning Cinderella. She was hanging out with a bad crowd, spending nights in the forest smoking and drinking. She lost interest in her appearance, wearing rags and not bothering to wash off the ashes from the rowdy bonfire parties she attended.
Things came to a climax when Cinderella pilfered gold coins from the stepmother’s hidden drawer and some of her stepsisters’ jewelry, then went on a three day bender. She tottered home ragged and smelly.
At her wits end the stepmother grounded Cinderella for a month, going so far as to post foreign mercenaries outside Cinderella’s doors and windows. The stepmother recalled a recent brouhaha when another young girl’s lover had been caught climbing up to her bedroom on her hair. As an added precaution, Cinderella was locked in the highest tower of the manor, because her hair didn’t quite reach the ground.
Then an invitation to a ball so grand that it took place over the course of three nights, arrived from the palace. The dates? The last three days of Cinderella’s grounding. Although Cinderella begged, cried and threatened, the stepmother remained firm. Cinderella would not attend the ball.
Cinderella’s father returned home after hearing disparaging remarks about his character and neglect of his family, and unsettling rumors of his daughter’s escapades. He was outraged by his wife’s decision to keep Cinderella from the ball. Still, she would not be swayed. She really cared for the girl. Maybe missing the ball would force her to come to her senses.
Cinderella’s father refused to attend the ball with his wife and her daughters. He spent the evening drinking with an old friend, Charles Perrault, bemoaning the sad turn his life had taken and wishing he could leave behind an untarnished legacy. Charles was empathetic, well aware of the trials of marriage and of raising teenagers.
The next day, Charles, inspired by the father’s plight and intrigued with the notion of rewriting the father’s history, penned a short but captivating work of speculative fiction, Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper. He was so pleased with the results, he included it in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’Oye. (Tales from Times Past with Morals: Stories of Mother Goose). Concerned that the inaccuracies might tarnish his own reputation, he published the work under the name of his son Pierre (Perrault) Darmancourt. The rest is history.
Or is it? The cruel deception of Cinderella’s rags to riches story renders suspect all the fairy tales we have come to love and believe. I, for one, will read them will a little more skepticism than I once did.
A seventeen-year-old girl forms an unlikely friendship with a reclusive, unstable young woman who possesses a unique gift of sight and discovers the meaning of being true to oneself.
Seventeen-year-old Jersey Alexa (Jax) Mason is allergic to drama. But that’s what she gets when her boyfriend dumps her on a crowded dance floor. She would have preferred a text message. Amanda Rosenbaum’s reappearance and rumors of her time in the “looney bin” help take Jax’s mind off the break-up drama.
Amanda ran away when she was seventeen and Jax was four. Thirteen years later, Amanda returns to their sleepy town of Rudds Mill to live with her mother. Jax escapes to Amanda’s moss-covered patio when things get tense at home. She’s drawn to the fragile, unstable Amanda despite the fact that they spar over everything. Amanda has one foot in this world; the rest of her lives in a dark place inside her mind. But she’s aware of things that Jax has never considered. Important things about hope and life. And she knows all about the secrets Jax hides. How can someone so lost in her own world see inside of Jax’s?
Ethan, the new guy in town, starts hanging out on Amanda’s patio too. Chemistry sparks between him and Jax, but Amanda cryptically predicts they’re not meant to be. They try to blow her off. Amanda’s crazy after all. And she can’t always be right. As summer marches towards autumn, Amanda slips deeper inside herself, battling her mysterious past. Jax and Ethan need to save her before she disappears altogether.
This is my latest project for those of you who’ve been asking (and those of you who haven’t). It’s a contemporary young adult novel but, with all due respect to Ruth Graham, anyone can read it. At this point, I’m seeking representation by a literary agent. I’ll be posting updates, and bits and pieces about it on the A Voice Among the Thorns page.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.
It’s time for a face lift. And since I can’t afford one, I’ve decided to give one to this tired old blog. Over the next few days, I’ll be experimenting, changing things, having fun, changing things, getting frustrated, changing things and swearing. I’m a perfectionist for details (the big picture escaped my notice many times), so depending on when you pop in, things may change right in front of you. Don’t worry, it’s not your electronic device. It’s me.
Humorous side note: Most of the photos I found for barricades were taken in Michigan. The construction barricade is the unofficial state tree. Just one more thing that makes us Michiganders proud to live here.
I met our new priest this weekend. At confession. Confession is not the place to make a good first impression. But that got me thinking (dangerous, yes). I came to the conclusion that we’ve been doing it backwards. First impressions shouldn’t be good.
Okay, I’ll try to explain my logic (not always easy). Nobody is perfect. (If you suffer from that delusion you need more help than I can give.) So what happens when you make a good first impression? The impressee puts you on a pedestal, granted it may not be a tall one, but size doesn’t matter here. The moment you do something less than perfect, the pedestal cracks. The more the impressee gets to know you, the more hits your pedestal takes. Soon you’re left standing on a heap of rubble and the impressee feels cheated. You never live up to a good first impression.
A bad impression on the other hand leaves room for improvement. Making new acquaintances would go something like this:
Me: Hi, I’m Dawne. I can be a snarky bitch.
You: Oh, thanks for the warning.
The expectation is set. You expect me to be a snarky bitch. But when I do something nice for you—”This round’s on me.”—you are pleasantly surprised. And when I say something unbitchy—”You make the best margaritas ever!”—you begin to think, Hey, she’s not such a snarky bitch after all. Enter pedestal. When I revert to snarky bitch, you’re not surprised and the pedestal remains intact.
I think I missed my calling. Move over Socrates.