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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Point of View
August 2, 2000


Question:

I purchased Ender's Shadow the day it came out . . . and only finally started reading it! I've been taking my time and studying it to see how you approached telling the same story from a different point of view. It's fascinating to look at in that way. Today I came up with a question to tie into something I've been doing.

I told you my novel is finished and went to the Wise Readers. The feedback has come back and this is what I'm hearing: I'm losing people in the area of motivation. I have scenes where characters do things and the readers are asking: Why? I made it a point throughout the novel to not tell motivations, but try to show them. But in doing it this way, I have failed to achieve internal and sometimes external transport, and I get a lot of "why is she or he doing this?" questions. I put thought into it beforehand, and assumed readers would figure it out by seeing how the characters did what they did. Didn't work.

Today, I was reading chapter 6 of Ender's Shadow and on page 97 Bean starts messing around with the air vent system. As the scene went on, I started to question: Why is he doing this? And then I asked: Why is Card doing this? The External Transport was mostly there, I could see Bean climbing into this air shaft (with only a few confusing moments when he couldn't turn his head right or left). But I kept stopping and saying to myself, why is he doing this?

Then, of course, on page 99 he starts to wonder the same thing. And I say: Ah ha! Card knew what he was doing.

And I got to thinking why you did it the way you did it. Because Bean is the POV, and he doesn't realize it, it makes sense that he would later suddenly question why he was doing this. So it made sense . . . but that didn't stop me from questioning why. I had those three times that I asked what was going on.

That appears to have been the "price" you paid. It's relatively minor, but it is something that happened.

And I guess it fits into my question and problem. People reading my book are wondering at times why my characters do what they do. I have looked at it and I'm thinking: It's clear. But obviously I'm not right on that, because two readers are wondering what's going on.

How can I fix this?

I can tell. I can start the scene and tell everyone why they are doing it.

"Bean looked at the airvent and it triggered a memory from the Clean Room. He saw vents, tubes, passages . . . and then nothing. What was it? The vision did not continue. But he had to find out. He went over to the vent, and started prying it up with his fingers..."

Maybe that's more showing, but at least you get some sense that there is a reason he's doing it.

Or I could try to use Deeper POV Penetration. Have my characters think why they are doing what they are doing it.

I hope you can help me. I'm beginning to doubt myself, and I can't afford to do that. I have to learn how to establish credible motives for my characters so I don't keep losing readers at key moments in the text. I hope you can help me.

-- Jason Smith

OSC Replies:

You said: "I made it a point throughout the novel to not tell motivations, but try to show them."

And you did this because ... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"? Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice "show don't tell" is applicable in only a few situations -- most times, most things, you tell-don't-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.

Motivation is precisely the one thing that cannot be shown. What movies do -- using dialogue or most-obvious-assumed-motive to communicate motive is actually not very good because there are no shades or subtleties and rarely can be (it just takes so darn much screen time!). It's one of the reasons why movies simply aren't very good at subtle motivation, and constantly have to reach for obvious audience sympathies ...

When you are using a POV character, the single most important thing that you must tell the reader is the full purpose of what the character is doing, as soon as the character knows it himself. If you do not, you are cheating, and the audience gets less and less patient with you, until they lose interest because you are not telling them the most important information that people come to stories -- especially fiction -- to receive!

But then, you detected that yourself in how I handled POV in ES.

When you asked why he was doing it, I was in fact teasing you, but ... not really. Because Bean didn't have a plan. He's a kid who sticks his nose -- no, his whole body -- wherever he can, and only later realizes the possibilities. If I had him know a plan in advance, it wouldn't be true to his character. Basically, he has a whole modus vivendi: He always knows everything he can about the place he's in, so he knows all his strategies for escape and control.

So I was revealing patterns in his character and having him act true to character -- but I didn't make you wait very long before letting you see Bean discover a conscious purpose for what he was doing. But the unconscious purpose I could not tell you directly, because Bean didn't know it himself -- it was instinctive....

It's all part of POV ...

Your suggestion: "I can tell. I can start the scene and tell everyone why they are doing it.

"'Bean looked at the airvent and it triggered a memory from the Clean Room. He saw vents, tubes, passages . . . and then nothing. What was it? The vision did not continue. But he had to find out. He went over to the vent, and started prying it up with his fingers...'"

"Maybe that's more showing, but at least you get some sense that there is a reason he's doing it."

This idea doesn't work for me precisely because if Bean notices what prompts his action, then he would immediately conclude a purpose for it. To me it feels, not like true pov, but rather like the author making sure we get the connection.

In fact, this is what film does ... it shows you what the character is seeing so you know the connection he's making. But remember, the cinematic point of view is weak in novels. So ... show-don't-tell is a really bad idea, except in the scenes that you choose to show because they are the key scenes that give the drama.

Jason Smith replies:

You got me laughing so hard I can't sit up straight. You said:

"And you did this because ... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"?"

Exactly!!! That's what I've done! Too crazy.

Remember about six months ago when you said something that triggered to me the importance of character motivations? I had to start the novel all over again, and it was fantastic, because I really clicked with my characters.

Funny how it worked out, because while I finally clicked on my characters' motives, and how important they were, I then went and wrote a whole novel without explaining them at all… Because I was trying to show them.

And I have only myself to blame. Because you do mention about the showing and telling in Character and Viewpoint. But I've been getting some advice from a gentleman named XXX XXXXX. He's very helpful, and answers all my questions, but he crams show-don't-tell down my throat, and I chose to listen to him.

Thanks for making me laugh. I'm starting over again…

-- 2 August 2000


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