This essay was inspired by, and is based on, a discussion with the novelist and teacher Lee Martin at the Vermont College of Fine Art’s 2016 Postgraduate Writers Conference, directed by Ellen Lesser.
“Show, don’t tell!” – a revered rule for writers and editors wanting their words to breathe on the page. Don’t explain the scene, create it with phrasing geared to the human senses. Yet the vibrant pictures that skilled writers show are not photographs or etchings, oil paintings or cinema, but mental images conjured for the reader by an assembly of written language. It’s why we call it story-telling. But good telling, vivid telling, will become showing. How? When a writer with skill, insight, and experience coaxes the reader out of the pages of the book and into the reader’s own imagination. Once in that space, the writer must help the reader navigate to, or even create, the images and/or visions that capture the writer’s intent. Paraphrasing from Stephen King’s On Writing, this enables the reader to read the writer’s mind, i.e. what he/she is trying to show.
Why can this be rewarding for both reader and writer? When the work stirs true discovery for the reader, he/she feels connected to the writer’s creative effort, much as a music buff feels connected to the orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth, or the audience feels the magic of Shakespeare. Perhaps this “bridge to intimacy” is why Jane Austen’s writing exerts so much power 200 years on, or why The Iliad does after three millennia.
For the writer, this “image ignition” will prove that his/her “machine of words” does carry to another person the ideas created by the writer and put down on the page. The invention has done what its inventor intended: to transport enjoyment, even ecstasy, to the reader. The reader’s bulb lighting up is as joyful for the writer as the one that lit up for Thomas Edison in Menlo Park.
Still, it’s all built from words, words that, with enough impact, rise off the page and engage the reader’s emotions, re-appearing in his/her mind as pictures that show the writer’s intent. Yet where does the author find the concoction of telling that transports the reader to the story-image the author means to show?
The cheap answer is “Many places,” but renowned author, teacher, and novelist Lee Martin (The Bright Forever, Late One Night) preaches three necessary elements for every story: a) chronology, b) cause-and-effect, and c) consequences. The inspiration and imagination by which the writer tells these to the reader determines how effective he or she will be in showing the story through the images used.
Of course, with someone like Lee Martin “singing this song,” we all can see its necessity. Once the master artisan has shown me how to nail on the bootheel, the method is clear—no deep mysteries, right? Yet these three fundamentals are worth a disciplined look because employing what I call Martin’s Triad can put real magic into a story, memoir, or essay.
Chronology is simply the order-in-time of all the events in your story. The chain of cause-and-effect, and its details, give each event a logical origin or reason to exist. Consequences are the results of chronology (timing) intersecting with causes, intended or unintended. These outcomes are the penalties or rewards, big or small, final or temporary, that answer the question, “What happened?” Without that answer, there is no story, but without Martin’s Triad of: a) an orderly chronology plus b) a logical chain of cause and effect, the c) consequences are neither inevitable nor believable.
Of course, a flawless sequence of events backed up by logical causes and leading to inevitable outcomes do not guarantee a wonderful—or even tasty—story. However, without them, you almost surely will not have one. (It should go without saying that these three “story struts” must be laced with conflict, the fuel that makes them glow with energy and emotion. A train’s timetable, the traction of the locomotive, and the stations en route are just scribblings on a schedule; but put a bomb on the tracks, a criminal gang in the baggage car, and a Pinkerton Agent in pursuit, and you have a story.)
How, then, do we use these three struts to fashion the story of our dreams?
First, we must not violate the Triad, but—and excuse the seeming contradiction—we don’t have to use it logically or sequentially in the showing. Our narrative may open with the story’s final act, rather than the first. A character’s actions may, initially, have no apparent ties to cause-and-effect. Outcomes may emerge with no origins in sight, or in ways that seem illogical. We’ve all seen this in pulp fiction as well as classics of the art. Good writing, though, will execute this apparent jumbling in a way that, while challenging the reader, doesn’t confuse or humble him/her, stint on the action, or violate the chronology, cause-and-effect, and inevitability of the (oft unexpected) consequences.
In other words, it is absolutely fine, and often admirable, to twist and disguise the facts underpinning your story as you lead the reader through your narrative, beginning with the first page, through the middle, to the end. Yet, once ended, the full story must be faithful to those underlying facts.
Wonderful writing can cascade from the imaginative disassembly-reassembly of Martin’s Triad. You may employ the “Big 5” early (main characters, their quest(s), your hook, plot expectations, the launch), deferring the orderly chronology (that will eventually complete the story) as well as some causes tied to that opening. In addition, you may open with consequences but reveal their causes or justification much later. Yet, in reassembling the narrative order that you choose to use, the ultimate integrity of for Martin’s Triad must be protected. The underlying logic and causes must remain intact and, in fact, be bolstered, even if in ways only gradually revealed. In the end, the three elements must be resolved and kept whole, for they are the mechanics of the showing.
(c) Lance Mason
About A Proficiency in Billiards:
This debut collection takes the reader along on the author’s bumpy adventures around the world. The hit came like a bowling ball to the face, like a round flying from a cannon. So begins Lance Mason’s essay, “In the Lair of the Red Dragon,” a raucous, joyous account of his California rugby team’s trip through Wales in the early 1970s. It’s one of a dozen essays in A Proficiency in Billiards, Mason’s new collection of creative nonfiction. An award-winning writer and universal vagrant, Mason offers readers a ridealong via VW Microbus, motorcycle, and Polish freighter through Greece, New Zealand, the Balkans, Africa, and beyond. From his poolhall and drag-racing days in 1960s Southern California to the emergency surgery he performed in the Borneo jungle, Mason displays a quirky flair for literary narrative. There’s just one story on the title topic in A Proficiency in Billiards, yet the true account of a 1960s teenage pool hustler helped develop Mason’s eye and affinity for the vivid characters he meets on the worldwide stage—from the old Greek claiming to be Al Capone’s getaway driver, who showed Mason and a buddy true hospitality in 1976, to the Zimbabwean on a train a dozen years later, certain that Robert Mugabe would lead his country out of its own hot mess. From these myriad members of the human tribe, the author draws a range of portraits but no commandments.
Order your copy online here.
Lance Mason’s website.