Today I’ll wrap up my discussion of Motivations and Reactions.
Yesterday I showed the first few paragraphs of the first Harry Potter book and asked my loyal blog readers how to “Show” this passage, rather than “Tell” it (as JK Rowling did). Today, I’ll give you my own answer to that.
First, let’s be clear that the passage really is “Telling”. None of this is happening in real-time. There is no Point-Of-View character with whom we can identify. The acid test is this: Can you color-code it into Motivations and Reactions? (See the color-coded examples I’ve done for a number of passages in the last few days).
Here is the Potter passage one more time:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son named Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.
The answer is no. There’s nothing to color-code. This is “Telling”.
But it’s brilliant. I have a rule for this: If you’re going to “Tell,” then be brilliant about it. Since it’s brilliant, there’s just no good reason to “Show” it–unless you can “Show” it better.
Remember that “Telling” is very efficient. You can tell a lot of information very quickly by “Telling” but you need to make it interesting. And this passage is very interesting.
JKR’s goal here was to take us from our own very ordinary world (in which magic doesn’t exist) into a very similar-looking world (in which magic exists, but the Muggles don’t know about it). How is she going to do this?
Her method is elegant and simple: She presents us in a few swift, comic strokes with three very unlikable characters, the Dursleys, who deny that magic exists. We have all met people like the Dursleys and we find them despicable. Since the Dursleys don’t believe in magic, and since we hate the Dursleys, we are willing to entertain the possibility that magic is real. This is how JKR pulls us into the fictive dream–by convincing us not to be like the dreadful Dursleys.
In the rest of the chapter, we learn that the Dursleys have a nephew named Harry. The Dursleys hate Harry’s parents and therefore have never met Harry, but they hate him on principle. Because we dislike the Dursleys, we automatically like Harry.
When we learn that Harry has somehow survived the death curse of the greatest dark wizard of all time, we’re intrigued. Nobody else has ever survived this curse. What makes Harry different? We read on to find out–but JKR doesn’t tell us for quite a long time. There is a reason, a very good reason, and it is one of the major themes of the entire series. Of course I won’t tell you what this reason is because it’s such an essential part of the story.
So in the passage above, JKR’s choice to “Tell” about the Dursleys is a good one. She doesn’t want to make us identify with the Dursleys, she wants us to believe in magic and to get curious about Harry. The way she wrote it works.
Let’s now summarize with my final slide from my lecture:
Slide 35: Summary
- The decision to “show” or “tell” is a strategic decision for each segment
- If you are going to “show,” the easiest way to do so is to use the MRU structure
- Structure is not enough!
- Sometimes you need to violate the MRU structure in order to get the best effect
- Resolve all dilemmas by asking how to get the most Powerful Emotional Experience
At the end of the day, rules can only take you so far. They can suggest ways to improve, but you can’t write fiction in a paint-by-numbers way by following rules. Those pesky rules are to help you figure out what’s wrong with a passage of fiction when it isn’t working.
But if a scene is working very well already, don’t mess with it.
OK, now it’s your turn. If you’re having trouble with those pesky Motivations and Reactions, then post a segment from your current work-in-progress in a comment here and I’ll analyze them in the order they’re posted. No more than 6 paragraphs please! I will ignore all posts that have more than 6 paragraphs!