We write a sentence, a paragraph, a page, crafting them to do what we want them to do. Maybe we even polish a bit to make them do the job even better. We’re happy.
Then someone criticizes what we’ve written. The natural reaction is to defend the work—after all, it’s doing what we want it to.
At least we think it is. But, in many years as a creative in advertising (copywriter, creative director), I received daily critiques of my work from colleagues, bosses, and clients. I learned early on that it doesn’t work to argue. In fact, it can work against you.
The way I see it, if someone points out what they believe is a shortcoming, there’s at least a 50-50 chance that they’re right. If they’re experienced in the area the writing concerns, the odds are even more in favor of them being right. If you argue instead of considering the validity of the criticism, you lose an opportunity to make your work even better.
So I learned early on to stifle the defense and rethink everything. If, after analysis, I felt it was still right, then I’d argue. If not, I'd rewrite, and always ended up with a stronger way to do the job.
A case in point
Here's the opening line of a page a talented writer submitted to FtQ for a flogging:
His father was raving again.
In the critique, I suggested deleting the sentence and I labeled it “telling.” The writer argued with my opinion, both in a comment and then in emails to me. Satisfied with their belief, this writer won't be doing anything to strengthen what I saw as a weak line.
So, okay, let’s analyze that opening line for what it actually does, and then we’ll examine its merits.
Keep in mind that I come at this from the point of view that you need to make every word count, especially on your opening page.
First, what is “showing?” It is providing the reader with story elements in a scene that they see, or hear, or maybe even smell. “Show” means literally that—description of action, something happening; picturing what is seen; delivering the sounds in the scene.
“Tell” means to inform, to deliver information. A typical use of telling in fiction is to summarize scenes or actions or dialogue. Whenever you see summary, it’s telling. And there are many times in a novel or memoir where “telling” is exactly the right thing to do.
For more thoughts on showing and telling, here’s a chapter from my book on the topic.
So what about that opening line? Showing or telling? A poll is coming.
The first clue that this sentence is “telling” is the word “again.” Interestingly, the writer says in their comment that “again” SHOWS that the man is repeating his raving. Really? Do we see him rave and then rave again? That would be showing. No, “again” tells us that this has happened before.
What about “was raving?” Is that showing us rage? Here are things that come to my mind if I want to show raving:
- spittle flying from a mouth
- a mouth that’s yelling, loudly
- bared teeth
- a flushed face
- clenched fists, waving arms, pacing, or all of those things
- sweat beading a face
- a swollen vein in a forehead
- glaring eyes, bulging eyes
- gestures such as pointing, threatening with a fist
If you want to show me raving, you show me those kinds of things. “Was raving” is, in essence, a summary of all those things that go to make up (show) rage.
So here’s a poll: do you think “His father was raving again.” is “showing” or “telling?” Come back after the poll.
But wait, there’s more!
The sentence starts with “His,” a personal pronoun. The thing about pronouns, with the frequent exception of “it,” is that they have antecedents—or should have. It is the antecedent that gives the pronoun meaning. Using “his” in this way gives no clue as to the person to whom it refers. We can understand, vaguely, that there is a male involved. But that’s it.
Here's a quick illustration from an article on antecedents by Robin L. Simmons (you should check it out, it's an excellent discussion of all kinds of pronouns and how to best use them).
If you hear a friend say, "She is beautiful," you know your friend is referring to a singular, feminine being or object, but with just the pronoun she, you don't know if the discussion concerns a woman, a cheetah, or an automobile. You cannot picture the she (emphasis mine) until you know the antecedent, the word that this pronoun refers to or replaces.
In essence, the use of “His” in the opening line under discussion is virtually meaningless. The reader pictures nothing, imagines nothing, gets almost nothing from “him.”
So how often do you think you should have meaningless words in your narrative?
That vague “his” robbed the opening line of people power
Research into what images have the most stopping power in a magazine or newspaper ad studied what things were most likely to make a reader pause at an ad, or even stop to look more closely.
The answer was faces. Guaranteed best way to arrest a reader. We human beings are most interested in people. In a story, we are interested in what happens to them. For me, that’s a powerful argument for launching your story with an immediate scene that brings a person or persons to life and shows them doing something that raises compelling story questions.
In this case, the "his" was a boy who was being treated badly by his father. I would have been much more engaged if that opening sentence served to lead the way into what he was experiencing. At some point I could still be "told" that this was happening again, but later in the page would have served just fine.
That’s not to say this is the only way to successfully start a story. On the other hand, if you can start a story that way and hook a reader, why not?
For what it's worth.
© 2015 Ray Rhamey