Friday, July 14, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the Distracted

I occasionally get a comment about how I should turn something into a short story.

Well, let me tell you my story... about short stories.

When I was just a wee lad, I wrote short stories and drew comics. Apparently, my short stories were quite good (for my age bracket). My comics were abysmal. For any age bracket.

As I grew older, I began to become more and more immersed in visual medium. I never directed a movie, but I wrote scripts. And cartoons. And comics. And pictures. All of these things were intended for the audience to watch. My prose skills were turned to essays, essays like this one. Except, you know, even shittier, because I was just a dumb kid.

There is an adage, "show, don't tell". I took that adage to heart. I rarely, if ever, tell anything. In fact, it gets to the point where I have started failing even to show, and have gone straight on to "vaguely imply". This isn't because I don't like telling people things: it's because in a visual medium, you don't have much of a choice. You either show, or you have really crappy writing.

In prose, you get phrases like, "Like all the maidens of the beast, she refused to use starch when washing clothes: the beast was allergic." It's kind of funny, kind of stupid, and actually contains a hell of a lot of exposition and foreshadowing in about two seconds of reading. It's also "told", not "shown". In fact, as written, there's not one single "shown" thing.

Telling rather than showing isn't bad! Instead, "on the nose" is bad, and that is what the adage is referring to. Basic dialog writing says your characters should rarely approach the situation straight on. Characters don't say, "I'm angry about the cat getting thrown into the blender, Dave." Not unless there's something you need to imply with that. Instead, they say, "You threw the cat in the blender, Dave. Did you think I forgot?"

You follow the same rule as your characters, and the story is your dialog. You don't simply describe the story: you describe the elements of the story, and the story itself fills the gaps. You don't say, "He approached the citadel of Shub-Shub, to avenge his father's demise at the hands of Grogar Kobb." You let those truths echo - you introduce those elements and, when he approaches the city, you can say something less... on the nose. Like, "Townsfolk crossed the street and cringed away. By now, his hand was surely a permanent part of the sword hilt. His eyes were disconcertingly bright, set in the dark circles of sleepless nights." See? Twice as pulpy, twice as entertaining, and still delightfully poor writing.

And... that's what happened to me.

No, not the father murdered by an evil warlord thing. The progression from "tell" to "show".

You see, I stopped thinking "prose", and started thinking "visual". Notice that last piece of pulp? Notice how... it would look good on a screen?

I can't think any other way!

The "starch" line is against my nature, because it includes lots of information which can't be picked up by someone watching the scene. It includes analysis, time drift, and intangibles. I automatically don't think like that. I'm the sort of guy who thinks that thought bubbles in a cartoon are kind of "breaking the rules".

So, that's why I don't write short stories. Because I've trained myself to be rigidly visual. And I can't break the habit!

If I could get a scanner, inker, and colorist, I could be convinced to do a comic version of nearly anything...

1 comment:

Patrick Dugan said...

Interesting, I guess the visual dominance comes from your being dominated by the left brain hemisphere.

One of the writers on the SIG list mentioned the idea of a GDC tutorial that teaches programmers how to write. I think that could be one hell of a session.

Personally I like to tell but in sideways kinds of descriptions, really blur the line between image and metaphor.