I read and took to heart your post about creating memorable characters, especially the protagonist. So I’ve made my protagonist into an alcoholic but a recovering alcoholic who’s always being tempted to take “just one little ‘ol drink”, you know how that scenario works right? And I also have taken to heart your post on how to show and not tell.
So I’ve been showing in my novel “The Recovery” how Jimmy, the ex-alcoholic, keeps turning down drink offers when he’s around his buddies who don’t know about his colorful past, but I’ve got him thinking each time something like “It won’t hurt to take one little ol’ drink, now, will it?” He’s asking himself that here. And then he answers himself like “Maybe not but maybe I’d better not.”
So do you think that’s enough to let my readers know about his history with booze and how much of a struggle it is for him?
Please advise me, Maggie, so I can make sure my readers understand how important this part of Jimmy’s character is.
Is It Enough?
Dear Is It Enough,
First of all, let me congratulate you on your high degree of intelligence in following my blogs and writing advice.
Now, let me get to the heart of answering your question. Having your character(s) thinking thoughts such as what you described is a step up from “telling” I’ll admit and may be enough depending on your skill at showing the struggle he faces in his self-talk. If you don’t think that’s enough to help your readers understand such a titanic mental battle, you can do a little telling without making it seem to be “telling.”
Here’s what you do. Once you are well into your story and have established Jimmy’s mental turmoil, during a dialogue between, say, two of his coworkers, who are exercising their elbows at the local watering hole, you could manipulate their conversation similar to this:
“I wonder why Jimmy never shows up at happy hour here whenever us guys get together after work,” #1 muses, partly to himself.
“Didn’t you know, #1, that Jimmy’s an ex-alcoholic? I used to know him years ago when he drank like a fish. He kept losin’ his jobs because he couldn’t stay sober long enough to do his work,” said #2.
“Wowie. No I didn’t know that. He seems pretty sober now. What happened?”
“He joined AA, and they helped him go on the wagon.” #2 answered. “But if he takes just one little drink, he may start his alcoholism up all over again.” After pausing to chug his beer down in one huge gulp, #2 continued, “He said his wife threatened to take their kids and leave him if he started doin’ that again.”
Do you get the idea,”Is It Enough”? If you’ve done a decent job of cluing your readers in on Jimmy’s character “defect,” if you will, then coming right out in the open with it in dialogue like the above will engage your readers more as your partners and co-conspirators. Not only does this insure that they “get” it, but it also provides their own egos with a boost in thinking that they figured it out all by themselves before you came right out and “told” it in dialogue. Of course, the dialogue could take place between Jimmy and one of his friends or coworkers as well. Dialogue can be used in both telling and showing but moves your story along much better than simply using a narrative summary, which is almost what Jimmy’s thoughts are verging on in your description above.
But be warned! Don’t overdo this form of telling, or it will seem contrived to your readers, and they will probably throw your book down in disgust. I know I would! Matter of fact, I probably would anyway since my first guardian was a lush and sometimes forgot to feed me. So I have a particularly strong dislike of humans who drink too much. They have no business giving a home to an elegant and dainty pussycat like me who requires regular meals. I’d be better off in a shelter. Just as long as it’s a “no-kill” shelter. At least I’d get my three squares a day!! However, even just one really long square would work as well.