How Writers Get Fit and Lean

Well, we’re nearing the end of January 2015. It’s about the time most people drop their well-intended New Year’s resolutions. Go to the gym? Who has time for that now?

Luckily for me, I’ve just figured out my New Year’s resolution, so I should be able to take this initiative well into February! Or maybe even Easter! Actually, I think this is the kind of resolution every writer can easily apply over the span of many months and years.

StorywoodHankFindsAnEgg-magnumIt starts with Rebecca Dudley’s stunning little picture book, Hank Finds an Egg. In this charming tale, Hank the little bear finds an egg and over the course of the book attempts to return the egg to its nest.

A large part of what makes this book stunning is the world Dudley creates. Rather than illustrate the book with pictures, the author photographs the detailed dioramas complete with tree-filled forests lush with unfurling fern fronds and fallen leaves. Every item is cut, sewn, glued, and otherwise constructed by hand! Hank is an adorable felt-and-burlap chap. The leaves he piles on at night like a blanket, and all the hundreds carpeting the forest floor: cut out of paper. Those ferns: sewn and glued from felt and paper! The trees…well you get the idea.

Actually, you probably won’t until you visit Dudley’s site to see her amazing talent for yourself: http://storywoods.blogspot.com.

Stunning, right?

As I said, Dudley’s intensive creation process is only a part of what makes her books outstanding. Concise storytelling is her other strength. And when I say concise, I mean it because Hank Finds an Egg  is a wordless picture book. Readers, transformed into participatory viewers, witness Hank’s walk through the woods. They see him find an egg on the ground. They watch his attempts to get that egg back into the nest from which it fell.

But wordless picture books do so much more than just reel off snapshot events, like the photographs you put in your European vacation slideshow. And here we are in Rome. And here we are in Venice. And here’s Sandra just before she fell out of the gondola…. 

Like David Weisner’s Flotsam or Henry Cole’s Unspoken, Dudley’s book relies on the power of its visual cinematography to convey the exposition of world building and characterization, as well as the arc of its plot. When done well, wordless picture books layer in volumes of backstory. These storytellers do in the wink of an image what wordsmithers do in dozens of pages.

“A lot of writers seem to feel they have to give their readers a clear understanding of a new character before they can get on with their story,” say Renni Browne and Dave King in their excellent craft book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print (24). The this tendency lures writer’s into the infamous show-don’t-tell paradox.

self-editing-for-fiction-writers

I say infamous because so many writers struggle to understand the difference.

Confused writer: What’s wrong with my three paragraphs outlining Adeline’s personality, quirks, and family psycho-social history?

Editor/workshop comrade: It’s all telling. SHOW me that information. Put it in a scene with Adeline talking and doing things that reveal that information.

Writer harumphs her arms over her chest: But if I write out a scene, then aren’t I just TELLING you what happens?

Editor/workshop comrade: Hrn.

Show don’t tell. It’s a tricky tactic to label when dealing with people capable of acrobatic semantics. Here’s another way to think about it: Rather than dictate, demonstrate. Examining Hank Finds an Egg a little closer might help illuminate the difference.

For instance, in one photograph, Hank treks through the dense forest. Hank’s confident posture tells the reader that Hank knows this forest well. To know the forest so well, he must have lived in it for a considerable time. He appears young and small, so perhaps he has lived there his whole (short) life. That’s a lot to glean from one picture, but nevertheless, we readers provide what words might have otherwise told us.

Throughout the book, Dudley also conveys Hank’s characteristics; his very nature. He is compassionate (he cares for the little lost egg). He is fastidious (his little forest home is immaculate and neatly arranged). Hank is conscientious (he handles the egg delicately and dutifully extinguishes his campfire). And because he always travels with his handwoven knapsack, we know that Hank is resourceful. This resourcefulness comes into play when he devises many schemes to return the egg to its nest.

And we know all that not because there were words dictating it to us, but because we watched Hank demonstrate all of it. And because Dudley demonstrates rather than dictates, the reader learns more about Hank with every turn of the page. The more we know, the better we understand Hank and the core of his soul!

Strange to think that we can get so close when there is so much this book does not reveal about Hank: the name of the forest where he lives, its geographic coordinates, how long Hank has lived there, why or whether he lives alone, and where or whether his parents are. Furthermore, the book does not tell us what Hank’s daily life is like or what he was in the midst of doing when he came upon the egg. Dudley covers none of that. She leaves it out. Instead, she focuses on what she can show us. And what she shows is also what matters most to the story: compassion, conscience, resourcefulness.

And that’s where my New Year’s resolution comes in. I aim to locate those flabby exposition paragraphs (or what Ursula K. Le Guin calls “exposition lumps”) and lean them out over the span of a scene.

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Rather than lazily dictate the details, I will put them to work in a demonstration so that they may gain brawny bulging muscles — the kind that keep readers’ eyes affixed to my page. Further more, I will put those muscles into a long yoga stretch spanning the whole of my story, so that my scenes will in turn become more flexible and better able to bend, flip, and coil — delighting my readers with their Cirque du Soleil style.

In short, I strive to cut the chub from my storytelling!

My hips and thighs…well, they are another matter altogether.

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2 thoughts on “How Writers Get Fit and Lean

  1. Gotta get that bear book for my grandsons! I see you mentioned the French circus in your post; hence the Facebook photo association…

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