Last year, I attended the Sydney Writers’ Festival and listened to English author and creative writing lecturer, Scarlett Thomas, speak. This prompted me to purchase her book, Monkeys with Typewriters: How to write fiction and unlock the secret power of stories.
This book goes a little deeper than the average creative writing text. It considers greats like Aristotle and Plato, comparing their theories with modern day literature and movies, and revealing commonalities in storytelling that have lasted the ages.
Show, don’t tell
Chances are if you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably been told show, don’t tell. This statement urges against including too much backstory or penning copious amounts of detail. Instead, it suggests writers must aim to show through action.
An active story is a story that keeps us turning the pages. Stories heavy on the description can lose this sense of immediacy, which is a problem because as authors we are eager for readers to want to turn the pages.
Characters vs plot and what’s it got to do with Aristotle?
So why the comparison between plot and characters, and what has that got to do with Aristotle?
As Scarlett reveals in her book: “Aristotle argues that everything in a narrative, from changes of fortune to characterisation, must be demonstrated through action as far as possible. He says, therefore, that plot is the most important part of telling stories, not character.” Monkeys with Typewriters, p.51.
Scarlett continues to support this theory stating: “We learn about a character best by hearing about the actions of that character.” And, “it’s through plots that we experience characters, not the other way around.” Monkeys with Typewriters, p.51.
It’s all about action and seeing the story unfold
In practical terms you need to let your readers see how your characters behave.
Say you have a character who is a high-achieving control freak, with a tendency for drama. By putting her in a situation that illustrates these qualities through her behaviour (actions), you create a far more believable and interesting story. For example, perhaps she is hosting a Christmas party and has spent weeks preparing for it. Then, on the day of the party, something unforeseen happens–like her dog eats all the hors d’oeuvres right before everyone is due to arrive. Our character goes into melt down and throws a tantrum of majestic proportions. It is through the character’s actions that readers can see her defining qualities.
So next time someone mentions ‘show, don’t tell’ in relation to writing, you can nod your head knowingly. If you want to show off, you can tell them that the concept is not new and first originated from the Greek philospher, Aristotle, over a thousand years ago!
Do you agree that plot is more important than characters? Do you find it hard to show, rather than tell?