Tell The Reader Why
While showing, rather than telling, is an excellent technique when it comes to moments of action, drama and emotion, there are times when telling is a far more useful and efficient approach to take.
One of those times is when dealing with motivation. Why a character does what he does is going to be a key part of any scene.
It’s important that you make the reader aware of the character’s reasons as quickly as possible. As a writer, you may think you can withhold that information and that the reader will assume you will fill them in later and not be too bothered. You would be wrong.
It’s incredibly annoying not knowing the reasons for a character’s actions, and it directly affects how you view what they’re doing. It’s much more difficult to engage or empathise with a character when you don’t know their reasons.
But it’s hard to show motivation, especially if there are subtle or complex reasons behind a character’s behaviour. And in most cases it’s just a matter of practical necessity.
If a character is unscrewing an air vent in order to escape from a locked room, or if he’s doing it to hide a bag full of money in there, a longwinded demonstration of his reasons is less important than just letting the reader know which it is.
Waiting until he’s finished taking down the vent cover before telling us why he’s doing it may not seem like a big deal, but not knowing what’s going on isn’t a desirable state to be in. And holding back and then revealing fairly mundane information isn’t very impressive.
Far more effective to just tell the reader he’s hiding the money from his wife who’ll only ask where the money came from, and since he promised her he wouldn’t rob any more banks, she wouldn’t like the answer. And then move on.
Trying to ‘show’ that motivation wouldn’t be difficult and totally unnecessary. And not telling the reader until later would gain nothing and just make the story seem vague.
It’s obvious why aspiring writers often take the vague approach. The idea of not knowing what’s going on and then finding out seems like a narrative structure that will keep readers engaged, but it’s an artificial way to do it. If a guy is searching under his bed for something there’s no point in making a mystery out of it if all he’s doing is looking for his shoes.
There’s also the issue of POV. If the character knows why they’re doing what they’re doing, so should the reader (assuming we’re in that character’s POV). Not revealing the reasons just feels unnecessarily coy.
Of course, if the POV character doesn’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing then neither will the reader, but in that case someone should ask them (or they should ask themselves) why they’re acting in this way. You don’t have to provide an answer, but showing the reader you are aware of the lack of motivation will buy you time. Not for very long though.
Don’t forget to check out The Funnily Enough for more posts about writing.
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