Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Too Much Explanation? Watching How Much you Share about your Characters' Motivations

Unfortunately, although the third chapter of Underground is just about finished, it has been moved to the backseat while I focus on exams and a final paper for my second-year law classes.  Somehow, though, I find even my legal studies bringing me back to telling stories.

I was allowed to choose the topic for my final paper in Intellectual Property Law (a good thing, since I have to write 25-7 pages on the subject!), and decided to look at how a traditional art—storytelling—can help preserve folklore in a way that current copyright and intellectual property laws have not.  I’ll inevitably wind up arguing that the only way to protect oral culture is not to protect it at all, since a key aspect of oral stories is the way they change and grow with each new telling, but before I get to that point, I have to demonstrate the social utility of storytelling as a profession.  My research led me to an article by Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflecting on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” and a quotation that spoke to the writer in me:

"The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks."

My writers’ group discussed this very concept only a week ago, when one of us received comments from another writer suggesting she explain why her character did what he did.  This brings us back to one of the primary rules of writing: show, don’t tell.  A reader should be able to understand why your character behaves the way he does without in-depth explanation.  Leaving understanding to the reader not only creates a smoother, less-intrusive style of writing, but acknowledges your readers’ intelligence and draws them deeper into the story by letting them engage with the characters in a way that is meaningful to them.  Too much explaining, Benjamin argues, is one of the reasons storytelling as an art is dying.

Consider your favourite books; does the author tell you everything, or let you figure it out for yourself?  Are you told how you should feel, or simply allowed to experience the plot in your own way?  Can you think of any authors who do this well?  Poorly?  I’d love to know your thoughts!

If you’re a writer, keep this in mind when you write or edit your next chapter.  I know I’ll be checking for “whys” when I go through chapter three of Underground again! 

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