Chris Hill, “On the Art of Writing”
I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite quotes about writing and what I think of them - one is quite well known, the other less so, but I think they both have something useful to teach us writers.
The first is from the Russian master story writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov who said famously:
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
What’s that all about then? Well basically what he’s summing up in powerful and poetic fashion is what has come to be known as ‘show don’t tell.’ That’s a technique much beloved of creative writing courses where would-be writers are encouraged, for example, to focus not on telling the reader directly what a character is feeling, but instead on showing the reader things which allow him to make his own mind up.
For what it’s worth, my view on this is that a better phrase would be ‘show and tell’. The trouble with being prescriptive in writing is that it excludes—and while excluding some terrible writing it might also exclude some great, experimental work. So it never does to be too closed minded. Still, it’s a useful point to bear in mind I think, show don’t tell.
Whether you are describing moonlight or a character’s state of mind the route one - blunt description is likely to be less involving, less evocative for the reader than showing them something which draws them into the text and allows them to decide for themselves what is going on. Do it that way and you have given them a stake in the action— you have made the reader part of the story.
Now here’s some advice on writing from a more unusual source. The great movie director Alfred Hitchcock was once asked how long a couple could reasonably be seen on a movie screen, kissing on a bed. He replied:
“As long as you want—as long as there’s a bomb under the bed.”
Portly, upper-crust curmudgeon he may have been - but he knew about story telling didn’t he? Whatever kind of fiction you are writing it’s a very important thing I think, that bomb under the bed.
When I think of the better writing I’ve done, the stories which work well, it’s not usually the style of the writing, the quality of the jokes, or whatever, which sets them apart—it’s something else—it’s the presence of dramatic tension, the bomb under the bed.
If you don’t have that dramatic tension in a story you are writing then the words pretty as they might be, can lack focus.
When I’m writing fiction now I sometimes stop and ask myself where it is - that bomb - that sense of jeopardy. The form it takes varies widely depending on what you are writing of course, but in some form it’s a must.
The Pick-Up Artist (a short extract)
So why did you throw a spider at her?”
“I don’t know, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Rob Johnson was remorseful and dehydrated, he slurped full sugar Coke and inexpertly stifled a burp.
“Mind you, they’ll probably put that on my gravestone.”
His mate Sam nodded sympathetically: “After you kill yourself in your bachelor flat full of old newspapers and rotting takeaways.”
“Cheers, that’s cheered me right up.”
“You’ll have wanked yourself to death most probably, cried and masturbated yourself into a little desiccated lump.”
Rob spat a suspect bit of his bacon sandwich onto the paper plate.
“And you’ re my best mate.”
“Tough love son. So, tell me the rest of it, how did it go?”
“Oh, I dunno, when you left the bar there was just me and her and she was too beautiful, that was the problem and she was Spanish.”
“From that language college, next to the Tailors pub?”
“Yeah, that’s right. We had about a half hour of nothing conversation about that, plus me trying to explain the difference between a boil and a wart.”
“You know, I had that boil removed.”
“Yeah, but why tell her about that? I mean, why? An available Spanish sex goddess, you and her, having a drink, why with the boils?”
“Well, I was saying, a boil is to a wart, as a mountain is to a hill, but she didn’t really get what I was on about and, you know, I didn’t know the Spanish for boil.”
“Pity she spoke any English at all. So, what happened then?” Sam went up to the café counter to pay, returned to the tiny Formica table to hear the rest of Rob’s tale of failure.
“Well then, spider. I dunno why. I panicked. She was too attractive and it was going nowhere. She spotted this spider scuttling across the table, started squealing and backing off. I thought it might be amusing if I picked it up and threw it at her. So I did.”
“Well, there was a big reaction. You know, a tsunami of Spanish swearing.”
“How did you know, you don’t speak Spanish?”
“You can tell, believe me. She was dancing around, brushing herself down. Anyway, turned out she was allergic.”
“What did she say?” Sam was laughing, but in a despairing, head shaking way.
“She said, ‘If it bite me, I die!’”
“That’s priceless. ‘If it bite me, I die,’ fuck me, that’s bad.”
Rob was heading out of the door. “Come on, we’ll be late for work.”
“You’re supposed to chat them up, not give them anaphylactic shock.”
Chris Hill is an accomplished writer and author with a Bridport Prize winning feather in his cap. His first novel, Song of the Sea God, was published by Skylight Press, and was shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year competition as well as winning the eFestival of Words award for best literary fiction. Chris Hill works in communications and has a background in newspaper journalism as a reporter, news editor and editor. His second novel, The Pick-Up Artist, was published by Magic Oxygen in early February 2015. It is described as a raucous rom com about dating in the digital age. You can find Chris on his website http://www.chrishillauthor.co.uk/ on Twitter @ChilledCh and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/chris.hill.3726.