Designing Scenes from Notes

The dictum “Show, don’t tell” is solid in principle, but authors can stumble when trying to apply it in practice. Usually, the trouble stems from the distance between the author and the character narrating the scene. The author is merely pretending to be the character, and so when a new subject—most often a new character—comes up, the author tells what they “know” about it. 

Let’s use the example of a drunken father. The character shows up on the family doorstep looking to cadge money, and the scene is narrated by the son. The author writes a paragraph about how the father used to be a respectable butcher but hit his wife while drinking, to the point that she left with her two boys. She has an income, and she is contemptuous but also fearful of her former husband. 

So far what you’ve learned about the character are merely notes. The author is trying to devise who the heck the guy is. Once the basic premise is set, the notes have to be made active. You can start with easy stuff: descriptions. A man who drinks too much has it stamped on his face. He may smell like the liquor he drinks. How does he walk? Does he have a nervous tic because he needs a drink? All of that can be shown without any commentary needed. 

Now see if you can dig a little deeper. If the son answers the door—let’s say he’s 16—he has a long relationship with dear old dad. The son knows a good chunk of the marriage history, and he has likely been burned by his father before. How he interacts with Dad and what they say to each other can make all sorts of points about their relationship. Say, the father hates his wife for taking his children. He is going to try to persuade his son of the truth the way he sees it. But hasn’t the son heard his father complain dozens of times in the past about her? You construct the dialogue so the kid says, “Dad, you’ve told me this story a hundred times. I know she’s a terrible person.” Nuff said. You’ve made the point implicitly. Do you want to show that the son still needs his father’s love? Have the father, subtly or not, ask his son for money. Don’t you think that will bring tears to his son’s eyes, seeing his father stoop so low? 

Examine every sentence of your notes about a character and decide: is there a way to make this idea active? If you have to go further than you want to show a point, such as the son driving by the store the father used to own, maybe that is relegated to told history. But even there, it is not hard to devise a paragraph in which the son is being driven somewhere in town.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”          —Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.  

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.