Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Showing what's not there...

"Show, don't tell."

We're told it all the time. But what do you do when what you're trying to show is something that isn't there?

I mean, if your character is angry, you don't say:
Bob was angry.
That's telling. Show it instead.
"You son of a bitch!" Bob shouted.
Easy enough, no?

But what if you have a character whose parents never tell him that they love him and that's important but you don't want to come out with:
"Did you know that you've never said that you loved me? Do you know how that makes me feel?"

or something along those lines. A problem with fiction is that very often things that aren't shown to occur are still assumed to have had occurred. You might never talk about Bob going to the bathroom, but everyone assumes that he has. The only way to make it clear that he hasn't  is to say he hasn't.

But what if you don't want to specifically point out the lack of something because it would make it very obvious that's important. It almost becomes like the camera focusing on the cellphone after the heroine puts it done. Now, when she reaches for it when she is trapped in the elevator with the big bad, the audience isn't surprised. From the moment that camera focused on that phone, they have been expecting something to go wrong where she will need it and not have it. The suspense, the mystery, the surprise was ruined.

 It's completely different from if she had just put the phone down in full view of the camera, but no special attention was called to it. Like we watch her come into her house with arms full of groceries and her phone between her shoulder and ear as she happily chats with someone. Then she drops a gallon of milk and swears and tells the person she'll have to call them back and as she bends down to drop a towel on the puddle, we see her hand sort of leave the phone on the counter. That's it.

Then later, when she sees that she doesn't have her phone, the audience is surprised. Sure, we didn't see her pick the phone back up, but we assumed she did. But then, if we watch the scene again, we see that she didn't.

But how do you deal with something like someone never saying something to someone else? I mean, sure, you can show it because there is nothing to show, but there is no reason for the audience to assume anything else.

For instance, I just recently read Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, in which her heroine's parents are quite neglectful. Now, granted, it seems like in most YA books dealing with the supernatural, the parents are neglectful or just absent, but this actually dealt with it. For the first half of the book, you see the heroine being the grownup among her parents. They get along, but the daughter is the responsible one. "Like Bella," was my first thought.

I nearly put the book down then.

My brother had read it before me though and he wanted me to read it so I chugged on through. Then about halfway through, something not Bella-like happened. The heroine broke down because she was sick of it all. Her boyfriend had noticed that her parents didn't see what was important for her and he asked her about it. And she is angry about it. She cries about it. It is actually treated like the neglect it is, rather than just a convenient way to get rid of adults in the story. I mean, it still conveniently gets the adults out of the way, but at least the consequences are still handled.

However, until that break down happened, there wasn't really anything stated about the girl's issues with her parents. She would get a little annoyed with them sometimes, but we still sort of assumed (because of other similar books, I guess) that they were all still a loving family and she was okay with it. It made her seem a little silly and made the whole thing feel contrived. Then, when she broke down and we saw that it was actually impacting her, the whole not showing of things before suddenly became all the more powerful.

Gah, this is such a confusing subject. I'm rambling and I still can't seem to get at what I mean.

It's hard showing things that aren't happening, I guess.

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