Writing About Writing – Show, Don’t Tell

Remember a while ago, when I said I’d be starting a new series of posts subtitled “Everything You Know Is Wrong”, to the end of streamlining some topics that I often visit, in the hopes of increasing my output and giving people a reason to visit this blog more often than once every few months?

Remember how I NEVER DID ANOTHER “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG” POST AGAIN?

*ahem*

Welcome to Writing About Writing, the first in a series of similarly themed blog posts, created to the end of streamlining some topics that I often visit, in the hopes of increasing my output and giving people a reason to visit this blog more often than once every few months! This plan will SURELY succeed.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been doing a lot more creative writing over the past few months, and with that, I’ve also started collaborating with other writers. We proofread, we critique, we revise, we publish, we do it all again within a week. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s got me way more excited about writing than I’ve been in years. And now that excitement is spilling over into this blog, where all of you lovely people out there can read me write about writing ad infinitum! Won’t this be fun?

But first…

Who Am I? Why Should You Care What I Have To Say About Writing?

I’m nobody. I’m some random person in the vast sea of the Internet, writing out my thoughts on a free-to-use weblogging service on a schedule that translates loosely to “whenever the hell I feel like it” whose various musings share few common threads outside of being written by me.

I own several books about writing, and I’ve even read some of them. I get NaNoWriMo’s newsletter sent to me regularly. I dropped out of an English degree partly because reading upwards of 40 books in a single semester proved to be a task beyond my capability and, let’s face it, desire to perform.

In short, you probably shouldn’t care what I have to say about writing.

On the other hand, if you’re reading this, chances are that you and I are personally acquainted, and as such, maybe you’ve read something of mine that you’ve liked. Maybe you want to know the kinds of things that go through my mind when I’m writing, just as you’ve read me write about the kinds of things that go through my mind when I do other things that people seem to like. Or maybe you just like me.

So here’s what you need to know about my pedigree as a writer:

  • I like writing a whole lot.
  • Some folks say I’m pretty good at it.
  • I lack discipline and struggle with deadlines.
  • A given individual is statistically more likely to have read one of my fanfics than one of my blog posts.
  • Nothing would please me more than to have some one comment with a complete refutation of everything I say about writing.

If you want to know more, you can seek out some of the work I’ve done outside of this blog. It’s hard to come by, but it’s out there. I’m not putting any links in this post, but I’m sure many of you can follow the trail of breadcrumbs that leads back to other things I’ve written.

With that out of the way…

Show, Don’t Tell

One phrase that you’ll often hear when you get into storytelling – any form of storytelling – is “show, don’t tell”. Generally, this means that it’s easier to engage with an event taking place than in hearing some one describe the event. This translates differently depending on the medium of the story being told; in film, it means that scenes in which something happens are way more exciting than scenes where a character talks about something that happened. In games, in means letting the player DO something is prefereable to having them watch it being done. In comics, it means that illustrations are preferable to descriptions. You get the idea, I’m sure.

In prose, the notion of “show don’t tell” becomes a little more abstract. After all, when your medium is nothing but text, all you can really do is tell. Unless you feel like dabbling in wordart and concrete poetry in every story you write (and hey, if that’s your hook, shine on you reckless diamond), the concept of “showing” and not “telling” can seem odd and counterintuitive. So how are you supposed to do it?

It’s very tempting, when writing prose, to dump exposition on your reader. After all, you have a clear idea in your head about how things work in your story, and you absolutely want your readers to understand that so that they’ll be able to follow along. And I tell you right now, nothing is more boring to read than an exposition dump. When I was 12, I wrote a story about a fictitious space-faring naval organization, a “fleet” of “star” ships, if you will, and spent about 3 pages of text explaining rank insigniae. To me, it was super important that my readers knew how many stripes a captain had on their uniform cuffs compared to an admiral, even though this story didn’t even HAVE an admiral appearing anywhere in the narrative. Bad enough that I spent all this time describing something that could easily have been gleaned from a few characters’ actions, but it wasn’t plot-critical or even plot-adjacent. It was just some factoid I HAD to get out there because apparently that’s how amazing my totally-not-Star Trek story’s world was.

Showing and not telling is all about delivery. I know a guy who claims he only has three good stories, and anyone who’s hung around him long enough has doubtlessly heard all three. Myself, I’ve heard them all so many times I’ve lost count. Even so, every time he starts to tell one of them, I still get excited, even if I already know how it ends. Why? Because the guy is a FANTASTIC storyteller. He tells some parts slowly, he tells some parts quickly, he leans in, he gesticulates, he brings his audience into the emotions that he felt at the time and the emotions he’s feeling now as he remembers the event. And he always, ALWAYS gets the laugh. Think about that, and think about times where some one’s told you a story, giving you just the facts, keeping a steady pace and rhythm to their speech, and at the end of it, they might be laughing away, but you…you’re just not feeling it. And they offer an apology, usually saying something like “I guess you had to be there”. Do you get what the difference is?

Now, for extra credit: do you notice what I’ve done here? I could have sat here and spoon-fed you information on what “show, don’t tell” is, but instead, I conveyed that information to you through actions woven into the narratives I was telling. In fact, I’m doing it right now.

None of this is to say that exposition doesn’t have its place, even in prose. But, like all literary devices, it has purpose, intention, and specific uses that, if executed well, enrich your story rather than make it feel as if it’s dragging on. In a future Writing About Writing post, I’ll cover Sensory Writing as an example of one of the many applications of expository writing.

Until next time, this is An Unqualified Amateur, and I love Writing About Writing!

~Joselyn

The Summer of Jos: Reflections

At the outset of May, I declared to my friends and family that the Summer of 2015 was to be the Summer of Jos. A confluence of truly unique circumstances have allowed me to do something that I have not been able or willing to do since I was in my mid-teens: to live in the present.

For the first time since Grade 8, I’m not losing sleep about an uncertain future. I’m here, in the moment of where I am, using this time to take stock of the incredible, almost unbelievable series of events that have influenced my life, to reconnect with parts of myself with which I’d become somewhat estranged, and gain some new insight as to who I am and what makes me that person.

I’m going to share some of those reflections.

Four years ago, I began reading Homestuck, a webcomic story whose current length (>1.2 million words) is estimated to be longer than every novel ever written save one. For four years, I have steadfastly read every new page as soon as it was available to me. For four years, this story has been single-handedly sustaining my not-so-inner fangirl.

Also four years ago, I stood on the precipice of the single largest and most significant change in my life. I know that young people tend to overemphasize the importance of the things that happen to them relative to what happens to them for the remainder of their lives, but I think that the benefit of hindsight allows me to be justified in such an appraisal. In all but the most literal ways, the summer of 2011 shaped whom I was, whom I would become, and whom I would continue to be. It was at this time that I made the choice that would allow me to take agency in my life, rather than simply be carried along for the ride.

The four years since have been, without question, the most transformative years of my life. And through the whirlwind of all of those changes, for the first time in a long time it feels as though the end is in sight. Fittingly, for the first time in a long time, it feels as if the end of Homestuck is finally looming on the horizon.

Homestuck is, in many ways, a coming-of-age story about finding one’s place and becoming the person you’re meant to be. How appropriate, then, that the story has been a constant companion for me as I’ve been finding my place and becoming the person I was meant to be. I look forward to the resolution, look forward to seeing how it all works out, for both Homestuck and for myself. And when it’s finally over, it will feel like a bittersweet goodbye to a friend that helped me through the most trying times of my life.

A counselor I was seeing at the University recently told me that it was evident to her that I was a generally happy person. This surprised me, because for the bulk of my life people have always been telling me that I seem sad, that I have unresolved anger, that I’m really anything but happy. But, taking inventory of myself and all that I’ve done, I can see that she’s right. And this is the ultimate result of this transformative time in my life; I’ve become happy. Truly, honestly, unreservedly happy, and at peace with myself.

Not that it’s all been positive, of course. Finding confidence and conviction in my beliefs has brought about something wholly unexpected, but in retrospect, fully inevitable: I’ve made enemies. Back in my days of trying to be aggressively inoffensive, the idea of people actually having it in for me seemed….improbable.  I have never been universally liked, of course, but the people who didn’t like me never really moved beyond a passive, “eh” sort of attitude. Not so anymore; this past year I learned the truth of that old Churchill quote, how having enemies means that at one point in your life, you stood for something. People I once called friend have chosen to no longer speak with me, and complete strangers whom I’ve never met in person have expended considerable effort to my professional and academic sabotage. And still I find myself facing situations where I feel I must choose between a friend and a desire to stand up for what I believe in. In the past, I’d have almost universally chosen friend. Now, the choice is less obvious.

In the wake of it all, however, I’ve also found new friends, strengthened existing relationships, and found support and compassion in places both likely and unlikely. Seasons change, times change, and I change. And as I change, I find that people willing to help me are in no short supply. 

The summer’s not over yet. There is still plenty of time remaining to explore, to discover, and to embrace the present. Thank you, dear reader, for sharing this journey with me in your own way.

I’m too old to be cool.

Hello, everyone. I come to you today with a deeply personal confession: my name is Joselyn, and I like things.

To many, this may seem like an odd sort of confession. After all, it is a fairly well-known fact that most people, by and large, like things. Indeed, it is the habit of liking things that fuels much of the economy, particularly in this continent. And so this may seem like a fairly mundane “confession”. Of course I like things. Who doesn’t like things? But let me tell you, the Me of 10 years ago would be absolutely mortified if she knew I was going to admit to liking things, and on the internet, of all places!

It’s not that I didn’t like things at that age. On the contrary, I lked many things, perhaps even more things than I would profess to liking nowadays. But perhaps some history is required to put all of this in context. Strap yourselves in, folks, because we’re about to take a trip down memory lane, unearthing some memories that I’ve gone to somewhat absurd lengths not to disturb for the past while. We’re going back to the point in my life I decided that “writing” was a thing I wanted to do, if not as a career than at least as a hobby for the rest of my life.

In my teens, I was WAY into the Digimon anime. I never really grew out of my fondness for cartoons and the like, and Digimon happened to hit the scene at right around the point in my life where the idea of vanishing from the corporeal world into a world of fantasy, danger, and monsters the size of skyscrapers shooting missiles at each other was of particular appeal to me. More than that, though, is that Digimon, while ostensibly a show about and for children, had a surprising amount of depth about its characters and their relationships with one another, showing me that a story can feature explosive action and meaningful character arcs side-by-side, to the exclusion of neither. I loved it.

And so it was, that I eventually began to write fanfiction. I will never forget the first piece I finished and published to Fanfiction.net. It was crap. Like, absolute trash. It was a fluff piece in which one character takes another character out on a date and is killed in a car accident, and then a year later the surviving half of the date meets the deceased half in a dream, tears are shared, emotions are felt, and people with diabetes reach for their insulin test kits. Saccharine tripe appealing to the lowest common denominator of romance stories with all the emotional depth of a shot glass filled with water. Room temperature water.

That terrible story consumed me.

While I was writing it, it was the first thing I thought about every morning when I woke up, and it was the last thing I thought about before going to sleep every night. I never put as much care and attention into anything I had ever done previously, and the finished product is something of which I was extremely proud. Sure, the content may have been adolescent in its emotional sensibilities, but I am proud to say that its mechanics, pacing, and narrative voice were quite competent for having been writing by a teenager. That fact, and the popularity among the fans of the couple depicted, entailed that it received rave reviews and earned me recognition from some of those whom I considered to be Fanfiction.net’s finest.

The problem was, of course, that I was no longer at an age where it was considered acceptable for me to like cartoons. And anime occupied a particularly nerdy subset of cartoons within the public consciousness, making my passion for Digimon even less acceptable. I couldn’t even find refuge among those among my peers who were into other anime, as Digimon wasn’t considered “serious” anime, particularly not the dubbed version with which I was most closely acquainted. For me, it was another in a long list of things I felt I wasn’t allowed to like, or should feel ashamed for liking, particularly to the degree that I do.

The issue was exacerbated further as I became a denizen of the internet, frequenting websites known for their snark when examining other parts of the internet. These places would make fun of the easy targets, of course; furries, juggalos, what have you, but they would also prey upon creators of bad fanfiction and fanart as well, and because the Internet has no tolerance for nuance, it wasn’t long before anyone who liked a thing that had bad fanfiction or fanart associated with would immediately be conflated with the bad stuff. Soon, everyone seemed to be in a race to care the least about anything, and demonstrating any kind of affinity or affection for anything – ANYTHING, even these communities – was liable for potential mockery.

In short, liking stuff wasn’t cool. And in many parts of the internet, it’s still not cool. And let me tell you, that translated VERY cleanly to real life. I couldn’t show you my Digimon fanfiction even if I wanted to, as I have since purged any trace of my Fanfiction.net account, and the original drafts disappeared 5 computers ago. Anything to prevent people from thinking I actually liked stuff.

I recently celebrated a milestone birthday. I won’t specify exactly how old I am, so suffice it to say that I feel as though I have reached an age where my liking things makes them less cool with younger folks by association, solely because of my age. And it’s taken me this long to realize: I’m too old to give a shit about what other people do that makes them happy, as long as nobody’s getting hurt.

That’s not to say that I like everything, or that I don’t dislike anything, but I resent the attitude that every person who likes a thing automatically embodies the worst qualities of that thing and the people who like that thing. Yes, the Twilight Saga reads like some one wrote out a nonsensical dream about vampires without any filter between dream-world logic and real-world logic. So fucking what? I’ve got better things to do than congratulate myself for liking literature that I have arbitrarily deemed superior by no one’s rubric but my own.

Now, that isn’t to say that we can’t think critically about the things we consume or that there isn’t room for criticism of these things. By all means, criticize and scrutinize to your heart’s content. Write scathing reviews, make analytical youtube videos, rip it to shreds via podcast, speak critically about the larger social ills to which it contributes! That’s all good stuff that should continue to happen indefinitely. Just do so with the understanding that at the end of the day, people can like/dislike whatever they want to like/dislike, and they’re not wrong for doing so.

Fan art and fan fiction are how artists and writers cut their teeth in the craft. Yes, a very large percentage of it is not very good. But so what? They get people creating, working, and developing the skills necessary to one day BE very good, all the while allowing them to explore the favourite aspects of the things they love and that resonate with them.

I’ve made allusions recently to having gotten back into writing prose. What you may not know is that I’m doing so via fanfiction. In a world where Transformers movies continue to gross hundreds of millions of dollars domestically, I refuse to be embarrassed by that.

Oh, and if any of you respond to what I’m saying with a reminder that many fanfiction writers and fan artists choose to create smut, I direct you to this fantastic bit of slam poetry (tw: rape).

~Joselyn

The Chandler-Joey Paradox

I’m taking a break from being pissed off so I can wax about writing and characters and stuff.

Given the popularity of Friends, I am about 99.9% certain that some one, some where, has written about what I’m about to write about, but a Google search of “Chandler Joey Paradox” comes up with nothing, which means that at the very least, I’m probably the first person to have given it a cool name. First rule of writing, kids: give your shit awesome names. Second rule: awesome names should have an X or Z somewhere in there. Third rule: deliberately misspelling words to jam an X or a Z in there is basically the opposite of good writing. These tips are white-hot, I hope you’re writing these down.

So, Friends. Everybody who watched sitcoms in the late 90s probably knew all about Friends, as many consider it to have been the flagship of the Young Adult Sitcom era that persists to this day, heralding the end of the Family Sitcom era before it. It was a pretty big deal. If you never watched it, and can stomach the casual racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny emblematic of the period (some day, SOME DAY I’ll be able to recommend a thing without making that disclaimer), you can check it out on Netflix and probably a few other legitimate streaming services. All that you need for what I’m talking about today is a basic understanding of two characters, and how they relate to the rest of the cast: Chandler and Joey.

Chandler is the resident funnyman. The jokester. The witty one. Every single episode, Chandler is guaranteed to have several one-liners or puns for an expertly-timed laugh, useful for breaking tension or if it’s been too long since the previous joke. Joey, on the other hand, is the resident dimwit. The lummox. The dopey one. Not often given one-liners or punchlines, the humor from his character typically stems from his lack of awareness and/or intelligence in the situation at hand.

And yet, if you ask fans of the show which character they thought had the funniest moments, most, if not all, would say Joey. Even though Chandler is The Funny One, Joey, The Slow One, usually gets much bigger laughs.

Ladies, Gentlemen, Everyone in Between, the Chandler-Joey Paradox.

While I’m not certain if this phenomenon has hit Trope status, it can also be seen in other works as well. In Firefly, for instance, while just about everything that Wash SAYS is funny, just about everything that Jayne DOES is funny, and fans of that show are more likely to quote lines like “I’ll be in my bunk” or “This is my very favourite gun” over lines like “Were I unwed, I would take you in a manly fashion. Because you’re pretty” (though I will concede that “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” likely gets quoted more than anything from that show, but I digress).

The dichotomy in how the humor of these characters is delivered affects the audience’s response to it. Chandler TELLS jokes, while Joey ENACTS or sometimes even EMBODIES jokes. Typically, the setup for each of these styles of humor differs greatly as well; Chandler needs only a single setup line of dialogue or two, whereas Joey requires an entire situation to be constructed around the eventual payoff. As a result, the humor of Joey’s character resonates with audiences to a much greater degree, as it necessitates some investment into the situation as a whole rather than just a punchy one-liner. It’s the difference between slapstick and standup, in terms of comedy. In standup, the focus is almost always on the punchline, whereas slapstick depends on constructed situational humor.

In a comedy series, both styles of humor have their role in keeping the audience engaged. As stated before, one-liners and punchlines are useful for breaking emotional tension and keeping a humorous pace. Because situational humor has a significantly higher demand for investment on the part of both the writers and the audience, “telling jokes” keeps the audience laughing while building up to the much more significant payoff that comes from “embodying jokes”.

The principle of a funny situation’s inherent superiority to a funny single line is exactly why most people consider Calvin & Hobbes to be vastly, VASTLY superior to the sweeping majority of newspaper comics, both at the time and at present.

Now, go forth and write funnier jokes!

~Joselyn