I’m a big fan of how-to books on the craft of writing. I enjoy the insights of seasoned authors and take great stock in what works for them in terms of process, narrative, and inspiration. I am suspicious, however, of proclamations of “always” or “never.” “Never start a scene with the weather.” “Never use an adverb.” “Never use anything except “said” for dialogue.” “Never start with a prologue.” I understand that these are good rules, in general, but I’m sure we can all find exceptions to them.
Books on writing are great resources, but for true writing insight and lessons I prefer to visit great works of fiction where I can see the masters’ tools in action. Showing is always a more effective means of teaching than telling.
In Dani Shapiro’s, Devotion, she mentions that she reads a bit of Virginia Woolf’s diary to help ready her for writing. I read selections from Hemingway books each day before I begin writing. It never ceases to amaze me how much I learn from simply spending five to ten minutes with a great book each day.
As a result of this, let me introduce “Warm-Ups“–a new feature on my blog where I’ll share writing tools in action from the pages of the masters. Because my WIP involves Hemingway, you’ll see a lot from him for now. Eventually, I’ll move on to other writers. I’m hoping that sharing these tips will not only help you, but will help me internalize and apply my findings. In addition, I would love to hear your findings or extensions on these thoughts and passages. Just put what you’ve got in the “Comments” section, and hopefully, we’ll start a great database of writerly wisdom.
Without further ado, today’s first warm up is on setting and character description. I came across this passage in The Old Man and the Sea describing the old man’s shack:
“On the brown walls of the flattened, overlapping leaves of the sturdy fibered guano there was a picture in color of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin of Cobre. These were relics of his wife. Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken in down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.” (16)
So we know this: the old man lives in a hut made of palm leaves. He’s a widower. His wife was religious but he isn’t. He loved her very much–enough to need to put her picture away in his home so it wouldn’t make him miss her so much. When Hemingway describes the man’s room, he sneaks in layers of backstory and emotion that help make his protagonist sympathetic. If he describes objects in the room, it’s to advance the story and teach the reader something. There are no arbitrary references to curtains or useless knick-knacks. The description of the shack adds weight to his characterization of the old man. Even when Hemingway physically describes Santiago, he does so in this way:
“They were strange shoulders, still powerful although very old, and the neck was still strong too and the creases did not show so much when the old man was asleep and his head fallen forward. His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were faded to many different shades by the sun. The old man’s head was very old though and with his eyes closed there was no life in his face. The newspaper lay across his knees and the weight of his arm held it there in the evening breeze. He was barefooted.” (18-19)
Every physical detail Hemingway chooses to mention builds the old man’s character. We know he’s spent his life on the water in the sun, he’s weary enough to fall asleep in a chair before he’s eaten dinner, his eyes are the light of his face when he’s awake, he’s literate, and he’s too poor for shoes. Again, all shown–nothing told. There lies the power.
The goal is for the writer to transmit the story without being noticed. “Telling” description makes the reader mindful of the writer. “Showing” removes that layer so it’s all about the story. That’s when the reader can get lost in the text.
Today, try to find one scene where you can show your character through his setting and physical descriptions. If you have any other examples from books you’ve read, please include them in the comments. Happy writing!