Over the last month I've been pondering the gap between the words we speak and the way we interpret them. I've been contemplating needs, and the way others assess needs from what they think we say. I've been dwelling on the implications that the differences in interpretation have on the way readers interact with writing.
Today I want to explore just a little of what I've been thinking. I'm going to use just one example. It's an annoying one, too.
Why this example? Because it's one that – if a writer gives it to a character – most readers will interpret it in their way. They will fall back on their family background and life history, rather than being able to nod sagely and say "This is what happens at this point in this type of book. I know how to understand these words."
If a protagonist fulfils a part of a quest in a fantasy novel of a certain type and holds his/her treasure in amazed triumph, we can all nod sagely. We can all point and say "Hero. Quest. Growth. This is as it should be."
If a protagonist says "I hurt" then things are different.
Firstly, much depends on the character development in the novel. Also on the level of reality-suspension. If a hero is terrifyingly stoic then "I hurt" could be a fairly straightforward signal of "I am near death but I am brave and really, I don't want to distress you." Or it could mean "Magic cure, I need you NOW."
For some novels, therefore, a brief "I hurt" is unambiguous. This is good, because for many novels new writers are told "Show, don't tell" and so they leave out maybe a trifle too much of the motivation and understanding and, as I suggested earlier, the reader has to fill a lot in for themselves.
So what happens when the reader has to fill a lot in, where the novel doesn't follow tropes so closely (so the reader is not certain what to expect) or because the character development is less obvious (so that the reader has fewer clues on how to interpret).
This is where Real Life makes an entrance.
I hurt today. I've hurt, in fact, since I came back from Sydney. I carry a bag of shopping and have to lie down for 3 hours. I carry three bags of shopping and have to spend a day in bed. Yet what I tell people (and not everyone, at that) is that "I hurt."
In fact, my hurt will pass. Compared with six months ago, it *is* passing. It's just slow, and cumbersome and this is a particularly awkward stage of recovery, when I look fine and I want to be independent and I try to be independent and I make a muck of things and end in tears.
If I were writing me into a novel, and covering the hurt, I could describe it like that. Internal reflection, or explanation to a close friend. This doesn't appeal to a lot of readers, though. It can create an unlikeable protagonist. The stuff one can tell a friend and still be loved doesn't always work for your characters. I would have to balance the "I hurt" with quite a bit of other stuff, to show why the complaint doesn't sum up the whole person.
Or I could dump the explanations and let the reader work out the background to "I hurt."
Over the last 18 months (which nicely covers the time I've been kinda unfortunate with my health and also means that I'm referring to wider experience and not particular incidents ie don't assume that examples are about you) I've come across such a wide range of people interpreting the "I hurt" according to their own experience and world view.
My favourites include:
"I hurt" – "Why does she always blame me for things in her life."
"I hurt" – "Stop saying that. You're only saying that to get attention."
"I hurt" – "Quick, to the hospital!"
"I hurt" – "You are such a negative person."
"I hurt" – "I feel so helpless. I can't help you. I hate myself for it."
"I hurt" – "Tell me what's wrong. Can I help?"
"I hurt" – "Maybe your hurt-luck will affect me. Stay away, now."
"I hurt" – "When will you grow up?"
"I hurt" – "It's all in the mind."
"I hurt" – "I know a good doctor. Only 700 miles away."
"I hurt" – "I wonder what you did in a previous life, to earn this particular karma?"
"I hurt" – "Well, I hurt more."
"I hurt" – "You're wasting your life."
That's enough examples.
The simple truth is that some people will carefully read through your masterwork and will understand the beautifully-developed psychological implications of your 'showing.' Other people really need a few clues. Other people still need some deep background, so they understand that one character will interpret almost anything negatively or that the hero is one who talks down pain so any reference to physical distress ought to be interpreted as "OMG – he/she's dying!"
The trick I haven't solved for myself, is that balance. When to explain and tease out and when to remain obdurately silent. I haven’t solved it because, in one way, it's not something that can be solved.
Now I need a really strong one line summary to make you all think and take away a deep message. I need a simple mantra, to replace the "Show don't tell" where the "Show don't tell" fails.
There is no simple mantra. How to indicate why characters say and do things is something that needs to be addressed in each and every bit of each and every piece of fiction. It's one reason why writing fiction is so very much fun. It's one reason why we get particular joy out of particular books: we bring our own understanding to them.