Station Three. The Mind
‘I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes:
Or should it be, ‘I think, therefore, I think I am?’
One of the most fascinating things about our characters, whether there be good, bad or ugly, is how they think. How their minds work. We watch the heroes in a movie, or follow them in a book, wondering what they will do next. Learning how they behave and gradually coming to understand their character, that invisible, unique imprint that makes them walk, talk and act like no other.
Throughout these exercises I will be using examples taken from books, my books and those of others. For me one of the most useful methods of teaching Show Not Tell, involves studying the written and the spoken dialogue of successful authors and film-makers. Examples that demonstrate the principles we’re attempting to master.
Some new writers tend to try to explain how their protagonists are thinking by telling their audience. ‘Tom walked in the bedroom door and found his wife in the arms of his brother. He was furious. He wanted to kill the Michael. He felt betrayed…’ etc. etc. But the oldest adage in the author’s toolbox admonishes; ‘show not tell’.
OK, so we all know it’s show not tell, but how the hell do you actually do that? Most people need examples, things they can read, see and grasp, before they can break through one of the most baffling aspects of written dialogue. So, why don’t we try again.
‘Tom heard the muted sounds as he approached the bedroom. He opened the door and froze. She was in there with him, his arms around her waist, ‘You bastard!’ he swung at Michael, rage blinding him as he slammed a hard, clenched fist into brother’s face…’
You see? Showing is alive, and it’s often to do with definitive action, and movement; real time incidents and actions that will bring your characters to life. Telling is abstract, passive and a lot less gripping. Telling involves the brain, thinking and describing, instead of actions, reactions and energy. Ultimately your characters will be judged by what they ‘do’, not by what you decide they should ‘say’, or what you chose to say about them.
Another way to get to grips with, show not tell, is by watching movies. Movies can’t tell you how the heroine feels when her lover is caught in a trap or sent off to die in a war. The entire story is visual, the actors have to show how they’re feeling by their facial expressions, actions, gestures and the way they move.
You can also set the scenario for this by creating a visual landscape that your protagonists move within. Here’s an example from Endor’s Way. Chapter Two.
The shadow in the doorway glanced at his watch and looked back. There had been a movement at the far end of the street. From a distance you could have mistaken Charlie Douglas for an athlete. Tall, slim figure, dark track suit, Red Reeboks and a headband, but closer up the illusion faded rapidly. The gaunt face, haunted eyes and empty ass jeans all spoke of a long standing love affair with the big H. A mistress now badly in need of refreshment.
“Makin’ sure I wasn’t followed,” Charlies eyes were roaming up and down the darkened street, “This could get me fucked over, man.”
The feeling here is one of danger, drugs, destroyed lives, secret meetings. There’s an air of foreboding about it all. Something’s going down, something bad is about to happen. You can’t successfully tell them what Charlie’s feeling, but his gaunt face, empty ass jeans, fear of being followed and his eyes roaming up and down the street, show us that Charlie is frightened! Who’s the shadow? He’s not identified. Your readers have brains; they’ll work that out. You show them the scenario; you do not spell it out for them Let them uncover it. Make them work a little. Make them think. What’s Charlie thinking? ‘This could get me fucked over, man.’
One of my favourite books, and also one of the greatest movies ever made, that beautifully demonstrates the art of ‘show not tell’ is, ‘Zorba the Greek’. Antony Quinn and Alan Bates. You can watch this movie on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wD1JJM4p1gw#t=77.579417 If you’re committed to creating strong, meaningful and unforgettable, characters’, please, watch it!’
Zorba, (Anthony Quinn) is a Greek fisherman/farmer/ex-soldier/itinerant worker, who’s led a full, wild, and adventurous life. Alan Bates plays an uptight English author suffering from writer’s block on a holiday/retreat/escape to a small Greek island.
Here we have a clash of cultures, identities, beliefs, prejudices, sexism, ancient ways and brutal realism as a remarkable story unfolds in a small Greek village. The two main protagonists thinking couldn’t be more different. Zorba, a devil may care, no longer young, romantic, with a taste for wine, women and song. A forever hopeful dreamer, living on little more than enthusiasm and an unquenchable zest for life, meets a young Englishman. He’s single, in his early thirties, staid, conservative, timid, anal retentive, frightened of women, and lives by the rules – real and imagined. He believes in doing the right thing, he’s stitched up and shy, and he’s never experienced a wild, out of control moment in his entire life.
When the beautiful young widow stares at them from her bedroom window as they walk past her house one evening, Zorba knows the full meaning of that look,’
‘She wants you!’ he tells the startled Englishman. “Go to her!’
‘I couldn’t possibly do that.’ The Englishman protests, we’ve never met! I don’t want any trouble,’
‘Trouble?’ Zorba tells him, ‘Life is trouble. Only death is not; to be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.’
Later still, dismayed by the younger man’s lack of enthusiasm and passion, Zorba tells him: ‘God has a very big heart, but there is one sin he will not forgive! If a woman calls a man to her bed, and he will not go!’
This film is one of the best I know to help a writer grasp; ‘show not tell.’ The dialogue is brilliant, the acting superb, the facial expressions striking, and the sometimes brutally violent scenes, treasure troves of information for those looking to improve their understanding of how we can create and depict characters who think and act in startling ways when their basic characters are provoked and exposed.
Watch the movie with a pen and notepad. Write down the moments and movements that strike you. The sudden explosions of feeling, the wild declarations that Zorba makes that reveal his deep, passionate and often contradictory character. ‘Life is trouble, only death is not; to be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble!’
Do you see? This is his character being exposed, this is the real Zorba. He’s not politically correct. He’s never heard of that abomination. He’s free, unrestrained, wild, passionate. He conceals much of that at times, as we all do. He can be cunning, manipulative, thieving, lying, but underneath all of that he is simply a wild, free spirit.
That is where his thoughts and actions spring from when he is aroused. That is his true nature, his true character. That is what we must see, feel and know about our own creations. How do they think deep down? What are they when reduced to their essence. When threatened will they turn and fight, or will they run? Will they feel so dismayed that their heart breaks when the see the young Englishman, so tied up in his own warped sense of duty, honour, religion and country, that he cannot see, feel, or experience the living passions, experiences, and opportunities that life presents to us as Zorba’s – ‘gifts from God!’
When Zorba recognises how emotionally constipated the Englishman is, a sudden rush of invective exposes a critical aspect of his character. This is how he really thinks, he’s not politically correct, he’s not about to choose his words carefully, his passion is real, urgent and alive, flawed as it all is. In doing so it gives us all dramatic insights into the true character of one of the most complex characters ever portrayed on film.
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Another more recent movie that can be helpful in this ‘show not tell’ area, is Avatar. A truly great movie, one that is well worth studying. Everything is show here of course. As the movie begins we meet the main protagonist, a young, red-neck, American grunt. An ex-marine, physically handicapped and vulnerable who’s being coerced into a dangerous situation against his will.
Watch this film. You will get a good grasp of how this guy thinks originally, and how that changes over the course of the movie. The way his thinking changes and the character arc are both fascinating and utterly believable. It’s fascinating to observe how his thinking undergoes a slow, subtle, but powerful change as he encounters the trials and tribulations he faces on his own journey to understanding, empathy and maturity as a man.
Ultimately his transformation is total and complete, and we see the way his thinking has done a complete, 180 turn-around. He goes from a simple, almost brutish character, to become a classical hero figure who is prepared to risk his life for something he now believes in passionately.
This is the classical, Character Arc, the transformation of consciousness as the young ‘grunt’ evolves from a mere soldier into a strong, sensitive warrior, prepared to lay down his life for the woman he loves and his new ‘tribe.’ The classical heroes journey of mythology. This movie forever reminds me of a wonderful Irish saying referring to the uninitiated male. ‘Never give a man a sword, until he’s learnt how to dance.’