NOAH LUKEMAN’S “THE FIRST FIVE PAGES”/SHOWING VERSUS TELLING
May 1, 2015
“It is the writer’s job to show us what his characters are like, not by what he says about them, or what they say about one another, but by their actions. A writer can spend a page telling us his protagonist is a crook, or he can show it in one sentence, by simply describing his taking a twenty-dollar bill from someone’s pocket, and letting the reader judge for himself.” Noah Lukeman, “The First Five Pages,” under the chapter “Showing Versus Telling,” page 119.
Noah Lukeman is a fairly well-known NYC-based literary agent who’s represented authors from all over the place, many who’ve landed NYT bestselling novels, and won dozens of fancy writing awards. He also wrote this thin, helpful book, “The First Five Pages.”
My mother gave me this book—she’s also a writer; check her work out at Alfie Dog Press (Lori Mohr)—about three years ago and I immediately stuffed it behind my computer on my huge maple writing desk. Over time, other books—read or not—piled on top of it. I basically forgot about it.
Then, recently, after receiving helpful though frustrating and also obvious (now that I think about it) feedback from a pro book editor on my newest novel, I noticed “The First Five Pages” staring at me from the corner of my desk. Whipping it out, I blew off the dust and stared at it, blank-eyed. Then I popped it open and started reading. And, believe me, though it is from 2000, fourteen years ago, it is still helpful and very relevant to today’s writing industry.
The three main things my book editor told me—as I tell 98 percent of my new writer clients myself—were that I had these pivotal issues: 1) I was telling and not showing; 2) My characters lacked emotion; and 3) I have a tendency to ‘info dump.’
Now, what’s infinitely both funny and irritating about this—to me—is that, as a freelance book editor myself, I tell my clients this all the freaking time. Show don’t tell! Don’t explain or summarize what the character(s) did: Show them doing it with action! Action speaks louder than words. True. Action also speaks louder than summary. It’s true.
Anyway, because of this feedback, which I knew was accurate—hence why I was annoyed—I opened “The First Five Pages.” In it, I found the section titled “Showing Versus Telling.” And it was brilliant. Lukeman keeps it simple, clear, and concise; to the point. When starting your novel, it’s really the first five pages that have to shine the brightest. An agent is going to be able to tell A) If you can write at all; B) If you can set up the characters and the world well (and be believable); and C) If you can SHOW the characters in actions that effectively demonstrate who they are, what their personalities are, and make us care.
That last part, making us care, is probably the hardest part. Too often, prose falls into either the boring sphere, or the unsympathetic sphere. In either case, the reader will put the book down and say, “You know what? I just don’t care about this character.”
In my case—with my latest novel—even though I am a book editor, I ended up telling and summarizing and info dumping, rather than simply showing the characters through their actions, particularly the protagonist. Instead, I barraged the reader with bland, CBS-style reportage facts, and left the characters personality-less. Really, what I should have been doing is creating fun, believable, and interesting characters through actions: Them doing and saying things, the whole time making sure everything they do and say both includes tension and conflict and moves the plot.
“Remember: Above all, readers like to make a text their own. This is why they stay with a book: to sympathize, empathize, project.” Lukeman, “The First Five Pages,” page 120.
Again, what Lukeman is pointing to is: You don’t have to tell the reader everything that happens. You don’t have to info dump on us. Instead, create interesting characters that act and talk and move and DO things, and keep it somewhat vague and mysterious while also showing that the plot is moving forward. We learn and feel emotionally bonded to characters experientially, as readers. This means that we empathize when a character DOES something we can understand and relate to. Information doesn’t do much. Think about it: When a political pundit or news man/woman SAYS something related to a story, it’s rather boring. But when they move to the screen and SHOW it, especially live, all of the sudden it becomes a very real, very visceral experience. It’s the same in writing.
And Lukeman points out in the quote above that, also, readers like to create their own roadmap in a book; they like to use their own imagination. This means that a good, conscious writer can skillfully create only what is absolutely essential in a novel to get the reader started, and the reader will do the rest. The days of two-paragraph-long physical descriptions of characters of such authors like Charles Dickens or Jane Austin; those days are long over. A sentence, maybe two, and then get out; get back into the story. Sure, that might partially be America’s ADHD hyperactive can’t-focus-for-more-than-one-minute issue, but it’s also because readers have become much more evolved regarding the world of the imagination. And, also, writing itself has evolved.
If you’re a new writer out there, trying to figure out how to pump out that first chapter; how to even start your novel, try some practice. Try writing the first five pages of your novel, or an idea you have for a novel. Just for fun, create a character that only acts and talks; no info given, or very little. See how that feels. Try to inject some emotion into the characters, but not over-the-top; not sentimental, but SHOW the emotion through their actions and words. Show that five pages to a few people you trust. See what they think. I know, for me, that I have a tendency to tell and not show, and a tendency to provide too much info and even force characters to do things to move the plot, instead of allowing the characters to ‘act on their own integrity.’ Try to eliminate 90-100 percent of that info and telling and, just for fun, for practice, only develop a character to show. You just might enjoy it and learn. I did. And definitely go buy a copy of “The First Five Pages,” by Noah Lukeman.
“You said it. Let’s edit.”
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