Like Yanicke, I was given the old adage ‘show don’t tell’ pretty early on. But I never knew how to do it until one day, I went to my local Writers’ Group. It was a workshop by author Celestine Hitiura Vaite. She’s a Tahitian author – ‘Breadfruit’, ‘Frangipani’ and ‘Tiare’.
Celestine told us her house was spotless when she was working on a novel because she’d resort to sweeping when she was trying to establish a character or untangle a plot. She was the kind of writer who kept the momentum of her writing going even during the mundane domestic tasks, actually embracing them and using them as a tool to support her writing hurdles. I’m drawn to that kind of practicality and to this day I think about my characters while I vacuum the house, imagining how they would vacuum, thinking about their opinions on house cleaning and dreaming up scenarios they will face. But housework wasn’t the gemstone of advice Celestine gave me that day. When she promised us very practical advice on how to “show and not tell” I leant forward in my seat, pen poised over notebook.
“Imagine a video camera is strapped to your character’s head,” Celestine said and mimed attaching a strap around her chin. “Now, imagine what the character can see, touch, smell, feel and hear. This is how you’ll show your reader – because you’ll describe the beauty of the baby they’re looking at or the icy breeze that’s slicing through them or the steam from the pot that’s making their eyes sting.” It helped me understand how I need to ‘get under the skin’ of my characters if I want to write with authenticity… if I want to show without telling.
Here’s a hangover as experienced by my protagonist ‘Mop’ from my current work Downhill.
The house was silent when I woke up. I must’ve followed Gus’s advice because there was a glass of water by my bed and a box of panadol that had been ripped to shreds. I sat up carefully and had a drink. My head was throbbing and even cracking open the foil on two tablets sounded like a roaring ocean. I rubbed my hair and squinted around the room, trying to remember who I was and how I got there.
Our dog, Nuts, wasn’t by the back door. Mum and Dad must’ve gone out to the paddocks. They’d said something yesterday about checking fences. I slumped on the lounge, flicking through crappy Sunday television, trying to find the cricket. The screen wasn’t even visible with the glare of sunlight invading the room.
Through the window I saw the Hilux tearing up the road, dust was billowing behind it. I heard the tread of boots up the back steps and a pause while they were hinged off. Next came the gasp of the fridge door being opened, the clink of a bottle.
“Hair of the dog?” Gus held up a beer and looked at me.
“Nuh.” I couldn’t think of anything worse.
My second piece of advice is something I’ve just learnt along the way. It’s pretty unorthodox but I’ll share it anyway.
I think good old fashioned eavesdropping helps me to write authentic dialogue. I often listen to other people’s convos and then make a note of what they said (so watch what you say around me!). It’s interesting to consider their word choices, when they use names, how they interrupt each other and how they start a new idea before finishing the last one.
Again from my WIP Downhill:
“How’d you go?” Mum was at the stove and threw one arm around me while stirring the mince.
“Pretty crap, I rekon.” I stripped off my shirt and headed for the bathroom.
“Hey,” Mum stopped stirring. “Come here.” She held her arms out and I took the hug. “Yuck! You’re all sweaty and disgusting.” She went to the sink and washed her hands.
“How’d you go with those pickets?” Dad asked, picking up the chook scraps and heading out the door.
“Yeah, nah, alright. Vince took care of it. They’re still in the Hilux. Do you want me to-”
“Nuh, it’s right.” Dad was already out the door.
So that’s my advice – strap on a go-pro and eavesdrop. Give it a try and let us know how you go!