Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Judge, Don't Tell

When I first saw the commercial for One Day, I dismissed it as some run-of-the-mill Hollywood romantic comedy because, well, that's exactly what it looked like (and apparently, that's what the reviews said). Now, I admit that for a writer, I tend not to pay as much attention to popular novels as I should, so I was a bit surprised when Sierra Godfrey told me that not only was it a book, it was an absolutely fantastic book in the vein of Nick Hornby's best work.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I waited patiently for six weeks while the Palo Alto Library got an available copy for me, but once I picked it up, I knew exactly what Sierra meant. The banter was witty, the characters were vivid, and the pace of the writing was brilliant. And as I contemplated the what just made David Nicholls' writing so crisp and engaging, it took a bit of analysis to figure it out.

Short aside: despite having a ton of creative endeavors, I can be very mathematical about stuff. In fact, I tend to see the foundation of creativity as a bit of an algebraic equation, because you're often trying to properly balance the variables of what's good -- and how often to use them.

How does that apply? I try to look for patterns of what works and remember to implement it. In this case, I looked at Nicholls' descriptions in between the dialog. We've all heard the whole "show, don't tell" thing, but what Nicholls does (and my writing idol Nick Hornby does too) is that the descriptions go further than simply showing in a well-written way -- the characters are often applying their own judgments in this sentences.

Here's an example from the opening chapter:
Gratifyingly his hair was terrible, short at the back and sides, but with an awful little quiff at the front. Whatever gel he used had worn off, and now the quiff looked pert and fluffy, like a silly little hat.
For the above example, I can think of a number of ways to rewrite that to achieve the same descriptive effect, but you wouldn't get Emma's opinion out of it. In these two sentences, Emma's judgments about Dexter's hair are obvious: "terrible" and "awful" and "silly." Because of that, it helps us see what Emma is seeing while getting a little peek into her own character. Using this technique, you accomplish two things at once: first, get a creative description to the reader and second, provide insight into what the character is thinking.

Now, I don't think this will work for all situations, such as neutral narration (I do think it would be funny to sneak this into some of the technical docs I write). However, it's a simple way to infuse character perspective into description, streamlining your prose while making it more powerful. Isn't that always the goal?


  1. See, I think that would make the technical documents MUCH more interesting to read. You should do it. ;)

  2. So the hardware suddenly develops an opinion? Either the tech writer is having fun or the machines have started to take over!