Taking the Time to Unpack

Something I always struggle with in my writing is the show versus tell debate. A fellow writer, Sarah Tarbit (check out her blog http://sarahtarbit.blogspot.co.uk/ ) posted some advice from Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) as a possible solution.  

He starts with a simple declaration:
In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

He was definitely right about the first part. But there was a possibility he could be about the second, so I decided to try it.  

Following Palahniuk’s rules in my writing would mean cutting out all thought verbs: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realises, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

This went on to include love and hate, is and has. I couldn’t think of many words I would have left for my characters to play with unless they moved through a sea of constant description invoking the five senses on a continual basis.  But would that be a bad thing?

Instead of the character wondering something for example, I would have to unpack into description, gestures and actions, presenting the right details to the reader using specific sensory detail.  

However, I quickly realised that gestures and actions could replace thought verbs and leave more room for sensory verbs like felt, heard, saw, looked, touched, smelled, etc. And it did still read well, in fact it read better.

There were other obvious benefits to this, including increasing my novel word count. Look at how Palahniuk turns one sentence into several.

Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her ass. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

So, although the idea terrified me, at first it was working. I could feel myself writing differently and in fact certain scenes were coming to life. But then I got stuck again. I was trying to do too much unpacking.  And I was doing this in first person which I started to think made a real difference.

I did my usual research with the question ‘what do other writers do?’

I’m reading The Slap at the moment so I turned to that first, which is in third person perspective. Tsiolkas seems to mix it up so that devices such as photos (particularly for Connie where I’m up to currently) take over the thought verbs with description. He also makes the characters bounce off each other and uses their dialogue both for and against them. For example the swearing and violence of Harry’s language tells us a lot about him.  In fact when we first meet him, it is the descriptions of his surroundings, the food he smells, his arrogant and self-satisfied actions, and not thoughts that set the scene.  (Note: for characterisation techniques, read this book – Tsiolkas is a master at creating multiple characters from different backgrounds, ages, sexes and lives).

But was this just applicable for the style of narration where we aren’t speaking directly as the character and could therefore afford some distance? I opened a random page of  JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You  (which by the way is fantastic and will be featuring in a future blog piece ‘under the covers of ‘chick-lit’) and noticed a bit more packing was going on: I wished, I was so lost in my thoughts, I realised – but they were interspersed between action, dialogue and description and not as common as I thought they would be in first person.

From this I saw that a little bit of packing usually needs to take place between the unpacking for this to work in any perspective. It also became apparent that unpacking takes time; it can’t be rushed and therefore it makes you pay attention to every word that you write. 

Francine Prose, the little bible on my desk that is Reading like a Writer provided some further insight.  She offers a passage from Alice Munro where the thought verb ‘noticed’ is used twice and also quite a bit of telling goes on.  

Prose states that she uses this Munro piece to deliberately contradict ‘a form of bad advice often given young writers – namely that the job of the author is to show, not tell.’

What I gained from Prose was the fact that although ‘is’ and ‘has’ can be used a lot, thought verbs don’t have to prominent when a writer is telling e.g. ‘she had worked as an editor…she was also a poet.’ These things tell us quick facts about the character without venturing too much into how they think and feel about it.
Unpacking the Wheelie Bin

I decided to unpack a scene from my window.  This whole unpacking theme does fit into the fact that we have recently moved house. There is actually an unpacked box under my writing desk but I’m not taking that as a metaphor.  And what you are about to read did happen, but the police came while I was still typing so it all ended well apart from the wheelie bin died and is still a melted mess on the field, sorry to ruin the ending but I don’t have time to write it.

Instead of the ‘packed’ : I could tell that he loved fire or just he loved fire, I did this instead:

The flames licked at the tall boy’s face. A slow smile spread across it and his eyes lit up for more reasons than the fire dancing in it.  He threw scraps of furniture on the fire that burnt in seconds, to satisfy a quick rage.  He was standing so close that the tracksuit, loose against his body, closed against his skin as though shrinking away from the heat.

And in first person from the perspective of one of the police:

Packed: I wished that the kids would stop doing this. I realised that the younger community officer cycling up on his bike felt the same. But I knew it would happen again of course.  I noticed how they all ran off in a streamed line, like ants who knew where the holes to their underground homes were.  The smell of the fire was strong. 

Unpacked: I watched the kids run off like little tracksuited black ants pouring back into hedges and holes leading to the usual tracks they were used to escaping through.  But there were plenty more wheelie bins, bits of furniture outside gates of alleyways, long summer days nights to fill with parents who encouraged ‘playing out’ and an empty field wide with weeds and tall grass ready to burn. The smell of fire filling nosy residents’ noses until they spluttered out the taste of the smoke and dialed 999 again and again. 
‘I’m fucking fed up of the kids around here.’  The community officer pulled up on his bike, eyes still on the wheelie bin.  It didn’t matter. The kids would do it again. 

Now all I have to do is properly practise unpacking and then unpack my novel which is at 67,000 words so far…I might unpack the box under my desk first. 
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