The Reading Corner is a place where books of all genres are examined and reviewed. Comments, questions and disagreement are welcomed. Grab some coffee and a comfy chair and make yourself at home.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Body Finder

Today I want to write about The Body Finder and the idea of showing, not telling. I can already hear some of you whining, "But we know about that! That's so basic!" Well, stick with me. It's clear that this is a lesson writers still need to learn, myself included.

Show-don't-tell (SDT from now on) is something I struggle with, because I have a desire to over-explain things. I like making sure my readers know precisely what I mean, probably because I am argumentative and prefer to cover all points as explicitly as possible. With a blog and in academic papers, that's not a bad policy.

In fiction (and creative non-fiction), that's a very bad policy indeed. It leaves you with sentences like, "He was angry -very angry." Excuse me while I grab a pillow and take a snooze on that sentence.

How about this one? "His hands were clenched so tight that little half-moon cuts showed up in his palms."

That is an angry fellow. I would be sitting up and paying attention if that sentence was used. Telling a reader that someone is experiencing X is so much less engaging than showing a reader how X is being experienced.

So, on to The Body Finder and how SDT is related.

I don't read a lot of YA. It's not really my go-to genre -it's not that I don't like it, but I'm definitely not the target demographic. I generally enjoy what YA books I do pick up, but it's not a genre I actively seek out.

That being said, I have a question for avid readers of YA: Is it common practice for many YA writers to use italics to show a reader that something is important -very important -throughout most of a book? I suspect that it's not, because the SDT rule holds true in all creative writing, YA included; I have a feeling that the italics issue might be limited to a few books, like The Body Finder.

I will elaborate on it, but my main point today is this: If you have to use italics to show strong emotion or denote importance, you're doing it wrong. (By "it" I mean writing).

Using italics seems to me to be the very essence of breaking the SDT rule: you are telling people that something is important by setting it apart from the rest of the font -not by giving readers any details as to why this something is significant. That's a problem in a couple of big ways.

  1. It's distracting. I use bold/italics on my blog for emphasis because this is largely fact- and opinion-based writing, and because I want to set main points apart from the rest of the text. It is intentionally distracting. In a novel, I don't want to be distracted from the flow of the writing -it needs to pull me in and keep me there because I'm too entranced to look away. Throwing in italics every few paragraphs is visually unappealing and breaks the flow of the writing.
  2. It's lazy. If, as a writer, you are using italics to show that something is meaningful, you need to take a good look at why that is. It's probably because you're not using enough sensory detail to make the reader understand without having to be told. It's way simpler to use italics to tell someone this sentence is significant, but in the end, you're not really saying anything.
Now, I will have to grant that my copy of The Body Finder is an uncorrected proof. It is entirely possible that this overuse of italics was corrected in the final (anyone who's read it, please let me know). However, my experience reading the book was almost ruined by it.

The Body Finder has the worst case of italics overload I've ever seen. At minimum, 1 out of every 3 pages (not including the fully italicized "interior" pages, which are italicized for a valid reason) has at least one use of italics on it. Visually, that's horrible. It also tells me, at a glance, that I am being told things and not shown them.

Take this sentence, for example: "She needed to see what was there." Okay -at this point in the story, the reader already knows that Violet has the ability to sense the 'echoes' of dead things. It's almost a compulsion for her to seek them out. But telling the reader that she needed to see something does not evoke the emotion of need -it's just a lame signifier that "ooh this is important so pay attention."

Bummer. I want to see more of Violet's struggle between her desire to find these things (people) and put them to rest, and her desire to be a normal teen. Telling me she needed something doesn't do that.

Once in a while, the use of italics can be pulled off and done well. In a book like The Body Finder, where it's used to replace emotive writing, however, it takes the story and cheapens its emotional color and its fire.

That is especially sad, because The Body Finder (apart from a few cliched characters and adverb overuse almost as bad as the italics abuse) is actually a very good story. The plot is captivating enough that I was able to deal with the italics...on my first reading. My first reading took me about two hours. My second reading took me two days, because I was so frustrated with the constant italics that I would put the book down, which is bad. (See how annoying it gets?)

Readers -what's your take on the SDT rule and italics? Do you use italics effectively in your own creative writing? If so, how? Am I being too harsh? Is italics abuse common in YA novels?

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