Sunday, June 5, 2011

Jumping to Conclusions: Remember the Roadrunner

My husband was sitting in the breakfast room last Sunday when a roadrunner came up to the sliding glass door, looked at him while wagging its upright tail, and held out a lizard. A few hours later, my husband went back to the breakfast room to finish the Sunday newspapers. The roadrunner came up to the door again, this time holding out a small bird. It then walked around the corner of the house, hopped up on one of the A/C units, and peered in the side window, bird still in beak, at my husband.

My husband thought the roadrunner was offering him presents. My reaction was that it was making sure we knew that it eats the creatures we spend so much time and money feeding. Later, I searched Google for a less anthropomorphic interpretation of the roadrunner's behavior. I found this at a page at the National Zoo's site:
Food items often play an important part in roadrunner courtship. In early spring, roadrunner pairs reaffirm their bond through courting and mating rituals. A male dashes close behind a female, a tempting lizard or snake dangling from his bill. He wags his cocked tail from side to side and occasionally springs into the air and clumsily hovers to keep her attention.

Apparently, I have a rival for my husband's affections. Either that, or the roadrunner is two-timing his reflection in the door with his reflection in the window.

What does this anecdote have to do with writing? It demonstrates that a piece of common writing advice —Show emotions through actions and reactions, don't tell them—doesn't work well. An action, unadorned with any hint of explanation, can lead to different interpretations or just plain confusion.

We each have had a unique life; the older we get and the more we've experienced, the more different our reactions seem to become. In book discussion groups and critique groups, I've seen each member derive a different meaning from a character's action. I often am confused while reading about what emotion the author wants me to assume underlies a character's pout or hand gesture or head toss. Without any further clues, I can think of several emotions that could cause a person to act that way.

Even if the emotion seems clear, the reason for it may not be. Recently, I was baffled by instances in a friend's fantasy manuscript in which characters drew away in disgust or showed revulsion after close physical encounters with dead people. I wanted to know what cultural taboo or religious belief caused them to react so oddly. My friend was baffled by my bafflement. Such a reaction seemed so natural to her that it needed no explanation. As a result of our different backgrounds and different experiences with dead bodies, we had very different assumptions about what is a "normal" reaction to a corpse.

I now ignore the advice about only showing the results of emotions. There are too many ways a reader can interpret any particular behavior. I encourage you, too, to ignore this advice. Remember the roadrunner, and give your readers a break. Give them some other hints about what your character is thinking or feeling. Let your readers know about relevant cultural mores or incidents from the character's life. Otherwise, they may find your character's behavior as baffling as that of the roadrunner at our door.

Have you ever had a reader grossly misinterpret something you showed without any telling? Have you ever been confused by a character's actions? Or do you think I'm wrong and that a good author can get emotions across entirely through showing?

Thanks for stopping by today. I'll be blogging again on June 21, the first day of summer.

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

It's taken me quite a while but I find that you're absolutely right. I'm often amazed at the strange interpretations I get about actions on the page that seem perfectly clear to me. Better to err on the side of clarity, methinks.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I find some of the best literary writings are very ambiguous. That's why there are so many books and literature courses discussing the works of Shakespeare and so many others.

I think I'll take the middle of the road. Yes, make sure with the action there is context. But at the same time, if we narrate every action or emotion that would greatly take away from the book. We need some bit of ambiguity mixed in with clarity. To me that makes the reading so much more interesting.

As for the road runner, watch out! I hear they can be a jealous bunch if there's competition for the object of their affection :)

Liane Spicer said...

I too believe writers can take the 'show don't tell' rule too far. While I agree with Chekhov's admonition (“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”), some telling is necessary to avoid confusion and ambiguity.

Lovely roadrunner anecdote. Never saw one outside of the cartoon.

Terence Taylor said...

I get so into the characters' inner monolog as I write, I have to remind myself to physicalize the moment as well, and not just what's running through their head. What works best seems to be a blend -- what is happening in the moment combined with the inner emotion of it.

KeVin K. said...

I always try for the Chekhov approach, I cheat a bit.

I am fond of first person, so I can sometimes use word choice to convey feeling or intent without spelling it out. An example from a story I had a lot of fun writing: Early in The Monkey Puzzle Box detective Dixon Hill is caught flatfoot by information he hadn't anticipated. Rather than explain he's surprised -- or that being Dix he's annoyed with himself for being surprised -- he narrates:
"Huh?" I quipped cleverly.

This is a little trickier in third person, but it can be done.
And of course, I manage to lose my readers in the dark all the time.
Which suggests there may be a market for readers' companions -- annotated handbooks that explain what I meant by what I wrote.

Shauna Roberts said...

Interesting to see the variety of your responses, CHARLES, JEWEL, LIANE, TERENCE, and KEVIN.

KEVIN, this weekend I met a man who is writing a readers' companion for Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla. I think there's certainly a need for readers' companions, but how marketable they would be is debatable given how expensive books are nowadays.

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