Novels are a visual medium. This is true not only because readers scan pages to follow an author’s narrative flow.
It also is true because good authors paint word pictures for readers – animated word pictures, I might add.
One of my friends told me about his reaction to his first viewing of the classic movie Rebecca (based on Daphne du Maurier’s outstanding novel of the same name. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, run to the library and download the flick. Rebecca, which first saw the light of day in 1938, sets the standard for broody romantic suspense.)
My friend said the movie’s opening scenes, which show the hulking estate of Manderley in which most of the action is set, exactly matched the mental image he’d formed of the estate from the author’s detailed description. His response to the visuals presented by the movie underscore how powerfully du Maurier was able to “paint” her opening scene. sing only 26 letters of the alphabet and black ink on a white page she matched the work of set decorators, and a Hollywood budget. Friends, that’s writing!
Du Maurier’s detailed description of Manderley still works. One reason it does is the exquisite writing. Another reason is that the place itself is almost a character in the novel, as are all the other artifacts on which the hero’s dead wife left her imprint. I don’t think novelists today would want to nudge a reader’s patience with equally lengthy descriptive passages. That’s because leaders today have little patience with long-delays before the action of the novel starts. And that brings me to the point of this post: the need for “show – don’t tell” in characterization.
It’s fine to occasionally employ a tangential character to tell us the hero or heroine is selfless, or reckless, or courageous. But it’s best to show us what they are made of, by virtue of their actions.
Actions always speak louder than words. They especially do so in novels.
And actions are infinitely more interesting than character vouchers popped off by “friends of” the hero/heroine.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss boldly steps forward to volunteer herself as a gladiator in order to save her younger sister Prim from this ugly fate. To say, “Katniss was a loving and selfless older sibling,” might mean she gives her younger sister a larger portion of the pie. Nice – but not heroic. When she saves Prim, you need say no more. We visualize the scene and are in awe of her courage.
The same is true in The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo steps forward and volunteers to take the Ring of Power to Mordor. The Ring is an evil artifact that can only be destroyed in the volcanic fires of Mordor which lie in the heart of a demonic overlord’s kingdom – Frodo is risking everything by undertaking this mission.
And what about Frodo’s friend, Sam Gamgee? Sam refuses to let Frodo take on this dangerous mission alone. It’s one thing to say, “Sam was loyal and reliable.” But Sam sticking to Frodo’s side as he sets off on what may well be a suicidal mission becomes a moving visual portrayal of loyalty – one we not only grasp with our minds, but also feel in heart and gut.
So, whenever you can, opt to show us what your characters are all about by showing us what they do.